It is remarkable to me when I hear about people in history who have excelled in their careers despite being faced with tremendous obstacles.
Edmonia Lewis was a ground-breaking American sculptor. She was the first African-American and Native-American woman to become a professional artist, emerging during the crisis-filled time of the Civil War. She was known for her neoclassical sculptures and paintings, the likenesses of which were inspired by abolitionists and Civil War heroes.
Lewis attended Oberlin College (one of the first institutions to admit women and African Americans.) She was badly beaten by classmates after being accused of trying to poison two of her white friends. A few years later, Lewis moved to Rome where she spent most of her career. She sculpted in marble, focusing on images relating to black and American Indian people. Unlike most sculptors, Lewis insisted on enlarging her clay and wax models in marble herself, rather than hire a native sculptor to do it for her. Skeptical of the talent of female sculptors, men often accused Lewis of not doing her own work.
Her monumental sculpture The Death of Cleopatra was a highlight of the first World’s Fair in Philadelphia. Although Cleopatra was considered a woman of beauty and power, Lewis portrayed the Egyptian queen in the moment after her death in a disheveled, inelegant manner. It drew thousands of viewers.
Lewis is a great example of a black woman overcoming huge obstacles to become an artist during a time when few opportunities were available to people of her gender and skin color.
Photograph of The Death of Cleopatra by Caroline Léna Becker