Edmonia Lewis was the first sculptor of African American and Native American descent to achieve international recognition. In addition to creating portrait heads, Lewis sculpted biblical scenes and figural works dealing with her Native American heritage and the oppression of black people.*
Lewis’s first work seen publicly was a medallion, advertised for sale early in 1864, that featured the head of militant abolitionist John Brown. Later in the year her bust of Col. Robert Gould Shaw (a Boston hero who had been killed leading his black troops in the attack on Fort Wagner, part of the assault on Charleston, S.C.) was widely praised. Sales of copies of the bust allowed her to sail in 1865 to Rome, where Charlotte Cushman, Harriet Hosmer, and other members of the American art community took her under their wing. Lewis mastered working in marble and refused to hire Italian stone carvers to transfer her plaster models to marble, in order to quell any question that the work was her own.**
Her Moses, copied after Michelangelo, is an example of Lewis’s imitative talents; the sensitively carved Hagar (also known as Hagar in the Wilderness) is probably the masterpiece among her known surviving works. In the Old Testament, Hagar—Egyptian maidservant to Abraham’s wife Sarah—was the mother of Abraham’s first son Ishmael. The jealous Sarah cast Hagar into the wilderness after the birth of Sarah’s son Isaac. In Lewis’s sculpture Egypt represents black Africa, and Hagar is a symbol of courage and the mother of a long line of African kings. That Lewis depicted ethnic and humanitarian subject matter greatly distinguished her from other neoclassical sculptors.* Her career reached its peak in 1876 when her sculpture The Death of Cleopatra was exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.**
Edmonia Lewis depicts Cleopatra, the legendary queen of Egypt (69-30 BCE) who chose to commit suicide rather than submit to Roman forces. Cleopatra was a popular subject among nineteenth-century sculptors, who favored historical, biblical and literary themes and typically showed the Egyptian queen contemplating suicide. In contrast to her contemporaries, Lewis dramatically portrays Cleopatra dying on her throne, moments after being bitten by a poisonous snake. ***
In 1883 she received her last major commission, a version of the Adoration of the Magi, from a church in Baltimore, Md. It was variously reported that Lewis had last been seen in Rome in 1909 or 1911, but death records discovered in the early 21st century show that she died in London in 1907.**
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