National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Edmonia Lewis is the first African-American female sculptor who became internationally known in the Neoclassical style. She was born in Greenbush, New York in 1844 to a Native American mother and Haitian father. She attended but never graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio due to racial allegations against her. But a move to Boston in 1863 allowed for Lewis to open her own very successful studio where she was producing her own sculptures.

Participating in the Grand Tour throughout Europe gave her inspiration within the Neoclassical style and a feeling of community and equality with other artists that she had not experienced while living in the United States because of her race. Establishing herself in Rome, she proved to others that a black woman artist could produce works equal to and surpassing that of white male artists. Promoting her works in America was simple and profitable because she was so well-known.

Lewis’ sculptures were typically made of terra-cotta, marble, wax, and clay. The people she depicted were dressed in the classical costumes or bare skin instead of contemporary clothing to keep in agreement with the timelessness of the Neoclassical style. She was focused on depicting black and Native American peoples, abolitionists, and social activists. The main theme was black empowerment because of her difficult past and her many meetings with abolitionists, such as John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison, and supporters of women’s rights. Lewis celebrates these antislavery advocates and also shows the outcome of oppression through agonizing and hopeful portrayals of Africans and Native Americans.

Lewis would commemorate artists such as Patrick Reason for his engraving of a slave child asking for his freedom because he, too, is human. She would agree that this piece of art was moving and showed the world the prejudices minorities faced. Like Reason’s art, Lewis’ work would hopefully instill an emotional reaction that would advocate for a change.




Farrington, Lisa. African-American Art: A Visual and Cultural History. New York City: Oxford UP, 2017. Print.