Lewis, whose mother was Chippewa Indian and whose father was a freeman of African descent,
was born in upstate New York in 1843. Upon entering Oberlin College, where she studied
literature, she changed her name from Wildfire to Mary Edmonia. In 1863, Lewis moved to
Boston to study under a portrait sculptor. Funds from the sale of a medallion of John Brown,
leader of the rebellion at Harpers Ferry and a bust of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, commander of
the all African American 54th Massachusetts Infantry of the Union Army, enabled Lewis to study
in Europe. Lewis continued her studies of neoclassical forms in Italy where she made "Forever
Free," her most famous work. Lewis' last known major work, "Death of Cleopatra,"
was presented at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. Lewis's focus on African
Americans and Native Americans - -deemed questionable at the time - -as well as the disappearance of abolitionist
patronage may have contributed to her decline in popularity as an artist.
Henry O. Tanner
Laura Wheeler Waring
Forever Free (1867)
Edmonia Lewis on PBS
Online NewsHour: Testament to Bravery