By Penelope Green, nytimes.com
It was the middle of the 19th century, and Edmonia Lewis, part West Indian, part Chippewa, had the audacity to be an artist. It was risky enough for a free woman of color to pursue such a career, but to claim marble as her medium was to tilt at the Victorian conventions of the time, which decreed gentler aesthetic forms for the second sex, like poetry or painting.
Among the first black sculptors known to achieve widespread international fame, Lewis was raised Catholic, educated at Oberlin College in Ohio and mentored by abolitionists in Boston. She lived much of her life in Rome, sailing to Europe in 1865 and joining a community of American sculptors there who included female artists derided by the author Henry James as “a white marmorean flock.”
James singled Lewis out for special scorn. “One of the sisterhood was a Negress,” he wrote, “whose colour, picturesquely contrasting with that of her plastic material, was the pleading agent of her fame.”
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