Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art: The Dinner Party: Heritage Floor: Edmonia Lewis

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Judy Chicago (American, b. 1939). The Dinner Party (Heritage Floor; detail), 1974–79. Porcelain with rainbow and gold luster, 48 x 48 x 48 ft. (14.6 x 14.6 x 14.6 m). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation, 2002.10. © Judy Chicago. Photograph by Jook Leung Photography

Edmonia Lewis
b. circa 1845, probably Albany, New York; d. circa 1911, probably Rome

Born to a Chippewa Indian mother and a free black father, Edmonia Lewis was the first African American sculptor, man or woman, to garner national attention. Raised in the tribal traditions of her mother, she entered Oberlin College in 1859; Oberlin had admitted black students since 1835 and the town itself was a haven for free blacks, although it was not without its racial tensions. Lewis boarded with a dozen girls—all white—in the home of Reverend John Keep. She flourished at the college until a bizarre event shattered her quiet existence. In 1862, two of Edmonia's housemates accused her of poisoning them. Before she was officially charged with a crime, she was beaten by vigilantes and left in a field. The case was dismissed at trial and she remained in Oberlin for several months, living in the same house. She arrived in Boston in 1863 and was introduced to sculptor Edward Brackett by the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Brackett taught her to model in clay. She made rapid progress and achieved success with two works shown at the Soldiers' Relief Fair in 1864: a medallion of the militant John Brown and a bust of the Civil War hero Robert Gould Shaw. Sales were brisk—over 100 plaster copies of the bust were sold—enabling Lewis to travel to Rome in 1865. There she joined the colony of expatriate artists led by Harriet Hosmer and developed her mature Neoclassical style, often drawing upon her ancestry for subject matter. Except for occasional visits to the U.S., she remained in Rome and operated a profitable studio. Six of her works were exhibited at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial. Virtually nothing is known about her after 1880, when she disappears from public records.

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