To celebrate Black History Month, SAAM has just launched an online exhibition of Edmonia Lewis' sculpture on Google Arts & Culture. And to promote the exhibition, Google has made Lewis and her sculpture, The Death of Cleopatra, its Google Doodle for today!
Mary Edmonia Lewis was born in Greenbush, New York in 1844 to an African American father and Native American (Chippewa) mother. Orphaned at a young age, Lewis was raised by her mother's nomadic family and given the name "Wildfire." In Boston, Lewis began sculpting portraits of well-known abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Sumner, and Wendell Phillips. The sale of her portrait busts of abolitionist John Brown and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the Boston hero and leader of the celebrated all-African-American 54th Regiment of the Civil War, helped finance Lewis' first trip to Europe in 1865.
Lewis traveled to Rome, where she became acquainted with Harriet Hosmer and other American sculptors, many of whom had been drawn to Rome by the availability of fine white marble and skills of Italian stone carvers, who were often hired to transfer a sculptor's design from a plaster model to finished marble. Lewis was unique among sculptors of her generation in Rome as she rarely employed Italian carvers and completed most of her work without assistance, in part due to her limited financial resources.
Carved in 1876, The Death of Cleopatra is one of Lewis' most well-known works. Not long after its debut at the Philadelphia Centenntial Exhibition in 1876, it was presumed lost for nearly a century. See more of Lewis' work and read about the interesting, and often circuitous path it took before it found its final home at SAAM in 1994 thanks in part to a Boy Scouts troop in suburban Chicago.