The US Postal Service will release a new stamp honoring Edmonia Lewis, known as the first internationally recognized Black American sculptor. The stamp, which was designed by USPS art director Antonio Alcalá, will be debuted on January 26 in a dedication ceremony at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.
The stamp features a portrait of Lewis, painted by Alex Bostic and based on a photograph taken by Augustus Marshall in Boston between 1864 and 1871. It is the 45th stamp in the USPS’s Black Heritage series, which dates back to 1978.
A portrait of Edmonia Lewis dated around 1870 (via Wikimedia Commons)
Lewis was born in Greenbush, NY, in 1844 to a free Black father and an Obijwe mother. Orphaned at the age of five, she lived with her mother’s nomadic family until she was 12, and was named Wildfire. In 1859, she moved to Ohio to attend Oberlin College, becoming one of only 30 enrolled students of color at the time. It’s there that she changed her name to Mary Edmonia Lewis. But Lewis’s time at Oberlin took a bleak turn in 1862 when two white female classmates falsely accused her of poisoning their drinks. Lewis was acquitted of the crime but had to endure severe beating by white vigilantes and a highly publicized trial. The following year, she was also accused of stealing art supplies. Although she was acquitted again, Lewis was not permitted to finish her studies at Oberlin.
In 1863, Lewis moved to Boston, where she began her career as a professional artist. She started creating medallion portraits of prominent white abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Sumner, and Wendell Phillips. According to the artists’ biography at Smithsonian American Art Museum’s website, sales of portrait busts of abolitionist John Brown and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the white leader of the first all-Black regiment of the Civil War, helped finance Lewis’s first trip to Europe in 1865.
After short stays in London, Paris, and Florence, Lewis decided to settle in Rome in the winter of 1865, joining a flourishing community of American sculptures living in the city. Her work there included marble sculptures that draw from her mixed Black American and Native American heritage as seen in works like “Old Arrow Maker” (1866) and “Forever Free” (1867). Lewis’s oeuvre also incorporated mythological and biblical motifs in pieces like “Poor Cupid” (1872), “Moses (after Michelangelo)” (1875), “Hagar” (1875), among others. By that time, she had gained recognition in the United States with an 1872 exhibition of her works at the San Francisco Art Association and works featured at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.
Edmonia Lewis, “Old Arrow Maker” (1866), carved marble (courtesy the Smithsonian American Art Museum)
For long, accounts of Lewis’s later life were obscure with conflicting theories about the date and place of her death. Some reports argued that she died in Rome in 1907, while others said she was buried in San Francisco. It wasn’t until 2011 that British records unearthed by historian Marilyn Richardson showed that Lewis died in London in 1907 after spending her last years in the city’s Hammersmith district. She was buried in an unmarked grave in London’s St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery.
In 2017, East Greenbush’s town historian Bobbie Reno organized a GoFundMe campaign that successfully restored Lewis’s neglected grave in London. It was a year after Reno had begun campaigning with local authorities and the US Postal Office to honor Lewis in a stamp.
Artist Edmonia Lewis’s restored grave in London (via Wikimedia Commons)
“She identified first as a Native American. Later she identified more as an African American. She was in two worlds. She deserves her stamp,” Reno told the Greenbush publication Times Union.
Reno has also written and illustrated a children’s book about Lewis’s life titled Edmonia Lewis: A Sculptor of Determination and Courage (2017). “The story of her life is exciting, inspirational,” she said about Lewis.
In a statement, the USPS said: “As the public continues to discover the beautiful subtleties of Lewis’s work, scholars will further interpret her role in American art and the ways she explored, affirmed or de-emphasized her complex cultural identity to meet or expand the artistic expectations of her day.”
Editor’s note 2:45pm EDT: An earlier version of this article did not mention the name of Alex Bostic, the artist who painted the portrait of Lewis adorning the stamp.