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Sculptor Edmonia Lewis shares a message about human dignity through time

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Sculptor Edmonia Lewis shares a message about human dignity through time

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Edmonia Lewis, the first African-American and Native American sculptor to achieve international recognition through works reflecting her Catholic faith and the dignity of people, is commemorated on a new postage stamp.

The stamp, the 45th in the US Postal Service’s Black Heritage series, was issued Jan. 26 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington.

The stamp design features a painted portrait based on a photograph of Augustus Marshall taken between 1864 and 1871 while Lewis was in Boston, the USPS said.

Lewis overcame multiple obstacles before arriving in Rome in 1865 and opening a studio where she incorporated the neoclassical style popular at the time and established herself as one of the most important sculptors of the 19th century.

His work is in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Howard University Gallery of Art in Washington. The works are also dispersed in ecclesiastical institutions in the United States and Europe. Some continue to be discovered after being missing for decades.

Edmonia Lewis, an African-American and Native American Catholic sculptor, is pictured circa 1870. She is honored on a stamp as part of the US Postal Service’s Black Heritage series, scheduled for release Jan. 26, 2022. (CNS photo/ Henry Rocher, courtesy National Portrait Gallery)

Art historian Elizabeth Lev, who grew up in Boston and has lived in Rome for 30 years, said it was in the Eternal City, where its cosmopolitan atmosphere meant skin color didn’t matter, that Lewis found inspiration to pursue sculpting in his favorite medium of marble.

“Rome is becoming a place where she can truly not only discover herself, but become whatever she’s ever dreamed of being,” Lev told Catholic News Service. “The limitations she felt and were real in many ways in the United States were not limitations (in Rome).”

Lev has described Lewis’s work as reflecting her mixed ancestry as she created sculptures of notable abolitionists as well as figurative images reflecting the experiences of people of color, particularly after the abolition of slavery.

Lewis also depicted religious imagery, sometimes imitating Neoclassical and Renaissance artists. One such work from 1875 depicts Moses in an imitation of Michelangelo’s 16th-century statue of the man who led the Israelites out of oppression.

An 1874 play depicts Hagar, an Old Testament heroine who was servant to Sarah, Abraham’s wife. Hagar is shown after Sarah banishes her to the desert in a jealous rage against Hagar’s son, Ishmael, whom Abraham fathered. Hagar has an empty jug at her feet while looking up at the sky as she searches for water. Art experts speculated that Lewis chose Hagar as a symbol of courage and survival, a symbol of his own experiences.

Details of Lewis’ early life are limited. She was born in 1844 in Greenbush, NY, near Albany. Later in life, Lewis maintained that she was born on July 4 of that year. Her father was Haitian American and her mother was Chippewa. Both died before Lewis was 5 years old.

Lewis was raised by her mother’s family until she was 12 and was known as “Wildfire”, according to a biography in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. In 1859, at the age of 15, his older brother, who had become a successful gold prospector in California, helped Lewis enroll in Oberlin College in Ohio, one of the first institutions in the country to admit African Americans. She took the name Mary Edmonia Lewis.

However, she did not graduate. Despite the school welcoming African Americans, Lewis was a victim of racism and sexism. In 1862, two friends fell ill after Lewis served them wine, setting the stage for accusations that she poisoned them.

The charges were dismissed at trial, but soon after Lewis was severely beaten by white militiamen who left her for dead. About a year later, she was charged with stealing artists’ materials from school, but was again acquitted due to lack of evidence. Lewis left Oberlin in 1863 for Boston, again with the help of his brother. There she studied with portrait sculptor Edward Brackett.

In the staunchly anti-slavery atmosphere of Boston, Lewis was inspired to create busts of abolitionists John Brown, who led the doomed slave rebellion in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, who was killed while leading the all-Black 54th Massachusetts Regiment in the Union Army’s second unsuccessful assault on Fort Wagner near Charleston, SC, in 1863.

Lev said Lewis’s work in Boston and Europe was inspired by his experiences as well as the faith of abolitionists, whose belief in human dignity was rooted in their deeply held religious principles.

Having saved enough money from the sale of his work, Lewis traveled to Europe in 1865 at the age of 20 in hopes of establishing his career as a sculptor. After stops in London, Paris, and Florence, Italy, Lewis moved to Rome, where she opened a studio during the winter of 1865–66, collaborating with other female sculptors in a male-dominated discipline.

Lewis’s work caught the eye of several benefactors, including John Patrick Crichton-Stuart, known as the 3rd Marquess of Bute, a Scottish magnate who turned Catholic at age 21.

Crichton-Stuart supported Lewis financially, enabling him to create works that garnered rave reviews. Lev, other art historians and scholars continue to study and teach new understandings and discoveries about Lewis and his sculptures.

Lev said how Lewis became a Catholic is uncertain. Lev told a story that reveals that the Native American tribe that raised her in New York was served by Jesuit missionaries. Lev, however, doubts this is the case and points out that Lewis’ time in Rome was probably more influential in the development of his Catholic faith.

“There is the Catholicism of this Scottish convert who is very excited about her work and she is brought into this world of Catholic patronage in Rome. Part of that is welcoming the Catholic community,” Lev said.

One of Lewis’ best-known sculptures is “Forever Free”, created in 1867. It depicts a black man and woman emerging from the bonds of slavery. Lev said that while the man is standing, the woman is shown on her knees praying in thanksgiving for being freed from the bonds of slavery.

This sculpture and others, Lev said, are how Lewis used his art to communicate in subtle and nuanced ways to address issues of social justice.

“That’s where I think we can learn from someone who really knew racism, the woman who was beaten within an inch of her life in Oberlin. The woman who every step of the way had to overcome obstacles,” Lev told CNS.

Lewis died in London in 1907 aged 63. She never married and had no children. She is buried in St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery in the Borough of Brent.

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Copyright © 2022 Catholic News Service/United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

Sculptor Edmonia Lewis shares a message about human dignity through time

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