Today’s (February 1) Google Doodle—the first of Black History Month—honors Edmonia Lewis, the first African- and Native-American artist to earn international recognition as a sculptor.
According to her biography on the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s website, Lewis was born in 1844 in Greenbush, New York, to a free Black father and Ojibwe Native mother. Both her parents died before she turned five, and she spent part of her childhood with her mother’s tribe.
Lewis attended Ohio’s Oberlin College, one of the country’s first colleges to admit Black students, between 1859 and 1863. She left Oberlin after she was accused of poisoning her two White roommates. She was acquitted, but endured a violent assault by White vigilantes and further allegations of stealing supplies that prevented her from graduating.
Lewis fled to Boston, where she studied with sculptor Edward Brackett and created sculptures of abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. She later moved to Rome, where she created her most widely exhibited works, some of which are housed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. They include “The Death of Cleopatra,” “Moses (after Michelangelo)” and “Old Arrow Maker.” The museum’s website describes “Hagar,” another work preserved there, as an expression of Lewis’ pride in her African heritage:
In the Old Testament, Hagar—Egyptian maidservant to Abraham’s wife Sarah—was the mother of Abraham’s first son Ishmael. The jealous Sarah cast Hagar into the wilderness after the birth of Sarah’s son Isaac. In Lewis’s sculpture, Egypt represents Black Africa, and Hagar is a symbol of courage and the mother of a long line of African kings. That Lewis depicted ethnic and humanitarian subject matter greatly distinguished her from other neoclassical sculptors.
“Indian Combat,” a work depicting Native warriors in battle, was acquired by the Cleveland Museum of Art in 2011.