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“Prophecy Of Her Sisters’ Possibilities”—Edmonia Lewis

Edmonia Lewis, Albumen print, c.1870,

“Could the full story of the women of African descent be written, from Phyllis Wheatley to the latest graduate of Hartshorn or of Spelman, doubtless many a latent spark of genius might be discovered. Sometimes the spark has kindled into flame, and recognition and renown have followed. Such was the rare good fortune of Edmonia Lewis, the Negro sculptress, herself the prophecy of her sisters’ possibilities. Born about 1840 in New York State, of lowly parents, she was early left an orphan, poor but ambitious. During a visit to Boston, she saw a statue of Benjamin Franklin which woke within her a longing and a hope. “I, too, can make a stone man,” she said.

"The Death of Cleopatra" marble scul...

Turning instinctively to the great friend of her race, William Lloyd Garrison, he gave her letters to Mr. Brackett, a Boston sculptor, who received her kindly, gave her some clay and a model of the human foot, and bade her make one like it. Her first attempt was broken up, and she was told to try again. Then she triumphed, won an assured position as an artist, and the admiration of both America and Europe. Her first work was a bust of Col. Shaw exhibited in Boston in 1865; her second. The Freedwoman; and then in 1867, she opened a studio in Rome where her work attracted such appreciative attention that Harriet Hosmer, Charlotte Cushman, and other famous women became her friends and helpers. Among her finest works are Hagar in the Wilderness, Madonna and Angels, busts of Longfellow the poet, and John Brown the martyr, medallion portrait of Wendell Phillips, The Death of Cleopatra, The Marriage of Hiawatha, and a portrait bust of Abraham Lincoln…”

SOURCE: Phila M. Whipple, “In Woman’s Sphere,” Negro Neighbors Bond and Free Lessons in History and Humanity (1907).