Mary Edmonia Lewis
claimed two different years of birth throughout her life but research seems to indicate that she was probably born sometime in 1844, some accounts list the date as July 4th, in upstate New York. Her mother was Native American, maybe part part Ojibwa and part Chippewa, and her father was a black gentleman’s servant. Edmonia’s Chippewa name was Wildfire. She was orphaned at a early age and she claimed that she was raised by some of her mother’s relatives.
Her older brother, Sunrise, encouraged her to attend college before he departed for the California gold rush. He sent money home to her in order that she could enroll in Oberlin College. She thrived in college and showed great promise as a very talented artist. Her education was cut short after just three and a half years however, when her two best friends, white girls, were poisoned. Edmonia was falsely accused of the murders and captured and beaten by a white mob. She was acquitted after a very tedious and lengthy trial. With the ordeal over, and all charges dropped, she fled to Boston.
In Boston, she became friends with the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and the sculptor Edward A. Brackett. When she saw the statue of Benjamin Franklin that stood outside Boston City Hall. She declared “I, too, can make a stone man.” It was Bracket who taught Lewis sculpture and helped her establish her own studio. She made clay and plaster medallions of Garrison, John Brown and other abolitionist leaders giving her a small measure of success. One of her very first major works, was of a Civil War colonel, Robert Shaw, leading troops, the all Black 54th Massachusetts Regiment, into battle . It was a huge success, selling 100 copies. This provided her with enough capital to move to Rome where she lived with a number of other expatriate American artists, including several women.
Edmonia achieved both professional and social acclaim in Rome. One of her most well known pieces was Forever Free, which depicted two slaves who were overcome with the news of their emancipation. Another piece, The Arrow Maker, drew upon her Native roots and shows a father teaching a young daughter how to make an arrow. She also created busts of some American presidents, including Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln.
Almost immediately upon arriving in Rome she converted to Catholicism and her proudest moment was when Pope Pius IX visited her studio and blessed her work.