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Unprecedented for her time, in the late 1800s, Edmonia Lewis was the first sculptor of African American and Native American descent to achieve recognition both at home and abroad. Born to a Haitian father and Chippewa mother, Edmonia was orphaned at a young age and spent her childhood living with her mother's tribe. In her early twenties, she made her way to Massachusetts and came to meet the renowned sculptor Edward Brackett, with whom she eventually began studying sculpture.

While in Boston, Edmonia set up her own studio, and it became a hub for artists, painters, and sculptors. From this location, she witnessed the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first military unit made up of Black soldiers during the Civil War, march past the State House to the waterfront. Inspired by the abolitionist movement of the time, she made medallions of prominent figures and created portraits of antislavery heroes and Black soldiers. Her first notable success was a bust of Union Army Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.

Henry Rocher, Edmonia Lewis, c. 1870, albumen silver print, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.94.95

Her interest in sculpting continued to grow and she longed to relocate to Rome to further master the art form, which she did in 1865, with money she earned selling copies of Robert Gould Shaw's bust. The artistic freedom she experienced in Italy allowed her to develop an impressive neoclassical practice, creating portrait heads, biblical scenes, and figural works celebrating her African American and Native American heritage. Many of these works are now a part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The Death of Cleopatra, a 3,000 pound, 1876 marble sculpture depicting the Egyptian Queen after her suicide by the bite of a venomous asp snake, is one of her best-known works, and might never have been seen if it hadn't been rediscovered in a Chicago salvage yard in the 1980s after having been presumed lost for over a century!

marble statue carved by Edmonia Lewis depicting the death of Egyption queen, Cleopatria
Edmonia Lewis, The Death of Cleopatra, carved 1876, marble, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Historical Society of Forest Park, Illinois, 1994.17

Largely forgotten after her death in London in 1907, an East Greenbush, NY town historian (the area where Lewis was born) found information about Edmonia in her research and was blown away by her accomplishments. She spent years working to garner recognition for Lewis and first contacted the US Post Office in 2020 to petition for Lewis to get her own stamp.

Edmonia Lewis' portrait is the 45th stamp in the United States Postal Services Black Heritage series honoring individual Black Americans and is based on a photograph taken by Augustus Marshall sometime between 1864 and 1871. Other recent honorees in the series include playwright August Wilson, and dancer and actor Gregory Hines,

“In addition to portrait busts of prominent people, Lewis’s work incorporated African American themes, including the celebration of newly won freedoms, and sensitively depicted her Native American heritage as peaceful and dignified. A Roman Catholic, Lewis also received several religious commissions. The work she produced during her prolific career evokes the complexity of her social identity and reflects the passion and independence of her artistic vision,” the Postal Service said in announcing the stamp.

You can buy Edmonia Lewis' Stamp, along with others in the Black Heritage series here.


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