“There is nothing so beautiful as the free forest. To catch a fish when you are hungry,cut the boughs of a tree, make a fire to roast it, and eat it in the open air, is the greatest of all luxuries. I would not stay a week pent up in cities, if it were not for my passion for art,” Edmonia Lewis, February 27, 1864.
Mary Edmonia Lewis was born around July 1844, in New York, her father was of African Haitian origin and her mother of African American and Native American descent.
At the age of 15, Lewis enrolled at Oberlin College, a private liberal arts school in the US state of Ohio. The year was 1859, and Oberlin was one of the very few institutions to admit women and people of colour at a time when slavery was still legal.
Shortly after, she left Ohio and headed east, arriving in Boston in 1864 to pursue a career as a sculptor. Working in a field that was at the time dominated by white men, she was repeatedly rejected by instructors, until she met Edward A Brackett, a sculptor whose clients included some well-known advocates for the abolition of slavery.
Lewis earned her name in Boston with her many works paying homage to abolitionists and heroes of the Civil War.
Her local success and popularity in Boston made possible her decision to move to Rome, and it was in the Italian capital that she became a highly respected artist. There, she focused on naturalism and themes relating to African American and Native American issues, achieving both financial and critical acclaim.
But it was her Cleopatra sculpture for which she became most well-known. It was featured at the 1876 Centennial Expo in the US city of Philadelphia and is now part of the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.