To kick-off Black History Month, today Google Doodle celebrates Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907), the first woman of African American and Native American decent to achieve international fame as a professional sculptor.
Like many women of this time, information about Edmonia’s life is fairly thin. According to Google and other sources, Edmonia was born to an Afro-Haitian father and Native American mother. At a very young age, she and her older brother were left orphaned. The children were then adopted and raised by her mother’s family, where they became a part of the Mississauga tribe.
After a few years, Edmonia’s brother left the tribe, joining the gold rush out West and provided money for Edmonia’s education. At just 15, she enrolled at Oberlin College, which is where she found her love and passion for art. Edmonia’s time at Oberlin was filled with racial discrimination, so much so that she was unable to complete her degree and graduate. A brief written portrait of Edmonia on Biography.com further details her time at Oberlin explaining “she was falsely accused of poisoning two white classmates and was captured and beaten by a white mob.” Once recovered, and the charges against her were dropped, Edmonia moved to Boston.
Once she arrived in Boston, Edmonia sought an apprenticeship in order to follow her dream of becoming a sculptor. Because of her gender and race, she was continuously denied until she met Edward A. Brackett, a sculptor who worked with many of the “well-known” abolitionists of the time. Edmonia worked with Edward until 1864, when she had 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,” Google says. “Her work was very well received and with her success, she traveled to Rome, Italy.”
In Rome, Edmonia enjoyed immense success. Her work, which then focused on “naturalism and themes relating to African American and Native American people” was in high demand. She went on to receive international acclaim until her death in 1907.
In a statement, Google explains:
Today’s Doodle art, by artist Sophie Diao, 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 adversary.