February 1, 2017
Celebrating Edmonia Lewis
Edmonia Lewis wasn’t afraid to reshape convention. As the first woman of African American and Native American heritage to achieve international fame as a sculptor, Lewis is known for incorporating African American and Native American cultural themes into her Neoclassical style sculpture.
Born in New York in 1844 to a father of Afro-Haitian descent and a mother of Mississauga Ojibwe and African American descent, Lewis was adopted by her maternal aunts after her parents’ death when she was nine years old. At age 15, Lewis enrolled in Oberlin College, which is where she became passionate about art. Unfortunately however, her time at Oberlin was fraught with discrimination by many of her peers and the surrounding community. It was due to this that she was prevented from enrolling in her final term, and therefore was unable to receive her degree.
After her time at Oberlin, Lewis moved to Boston in 1864 to pursue a career as a sculptor. She was consistently denied apprenticeship until she met Edward A. Brackett, a sculptor whose clients included some of the most well-known abolitionists of the time. Lewis worked under Brackett until 1864, when she launched her first solo exhibition. Her work paid homage to the abolitionists and Civil War heroes of her day, including John Brown and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Her work was very well received and with her success, she traveled to Rome, Italy.
In Rome, Lewis joined a circle of expat artists and established her own studio. During this time, Lewis began sculpting in marble, focusing on naturalism and themes relating to African American and Native American people. Her work commanded large sums of money, and she continued to receive international acclaim until her death in 1911.
Today’s Doodle art depicts Lewis sculpting one of her most famous works, The Death of Cleopatra, which is on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. Her realistic portrayal of Cleopatra’s death received acclaim from critics, who called it “the most remarkable piece of sculpture in the American section" of the show. The vibrant colors of the Google letters also pay tribute to Lewis’s Native American roots - her Native American name was Wildfire.
Decades later, Lewis’s legacy continues to thrive through her art and the path she helped forge for women and artists of color. Today, we celebrate her and what she stands for – self-expression through art, even in the face of adversity.
Doodle by Sophie Diao
Be sure to check out Edmonia Lewis’s new exhibit on Google Arts & Culture for an in-depth look at some of her most iconic sculptures and the ways in which her heritage and surroundings served as inspiration for her prized works, courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.