Edmonia Lewis by Henry Rocher
It’s a remarkable story: A 19th-century artist, the daughter of a Black man and a Native American woman, who was raised on a reservation in upstate New York—where she was known by her Ojibwe name, “Wildfire”—overcame poverty and racial and gender-based discrimination to become an enormously successful professional sculptor based in Rome.
In Italy, Edmonia Lewis (1844–1907) was part of a group of expatriate American women sculptors, all working in the Neoclassical style then popular in both Europe and the United States. Lewis attracted prominent patrons for whom she carved a variety of subjects in white marble, including luminous portrait busts, full-size Biblical figures, well-known literary characters, and most impressively, a multi-ton sculpture of Cleopatra, widely regarded as the hit of the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.
After her death, Lewis’s work—like that of most Neoclassical artists—seemed old-fashioned and was largely neglected. However, in recent years there has been a marked increase in interest in Edmonia Lewis, indicated by the publication of a half-dozen books about her during the past decade alone.
In a sumptuously illustrated program, art historian Nancy G. Heller discusses Lewis’s place within the broader context of American Neoclassicism and African American art history, focusing on her most important sculptures as well as new scholarship concerning her life and career.
Heller is a professor emerita at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.
World Art History Certificate elective: Earn 1/2 credit*
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