Edmonia Lewis was an American sculptor of African, Haitian and Indigenous American decent. Her Native American name was Wildfire, which also fairly-accurately described Edmonia’s existence. She lost both of her parents as a child, and was sent away to prep school. After three years, the school decided she was “too wild” to be educated, so she left. Never one to be deterred, Edmonia attended Oberlin College, one of the first integrated institutions of higher education in the United States; but was denied graduation due to a theft charge - despite having been acquitted.
No matter, the start of the American Civil war was all the chaos and passion needed to ignite the career of this talented young artist. Inspired by the abolitionists and civil war heroes, but constricted by the perspective of her almost exclusively white audience, she sculpted black and indigenous American existence with a Neo-Classical eye. Her work is a study in cultural contradiction; elegant, and yet somehow unsettling.
Edmonia’s first solo exhibition was in 1864, and although she continued sculpting until the turn of the century, her most famous work was one of her earliest pieces; the bust she created of Union Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, commander of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, one of the first officially recognized African-American military units in the United States. Edmonia eventually moved to Rome, and spent her final years in London.
Image via National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution