The US Postal Service will issue a forever stamp Wednesday honoring Edmonia Lewis, the Black Native artist whose 19th century marble sculptures gained her international acclaim and are now held by the Smithsonian.
“As the first African American and Native American sculptor to earn international recognition, Edmonia Lewis challenged social barriers and assumptions about artists in mid-19th century America,” the USPS said in a statement.
Lewis, born in 1844 in Greenbush, New York, to a Black father and Chippewa (Ojibwa) Native American, attended Oberlin College in Ohio and established herself as a professional artist in Boston, according to the Smithsonian.
She moved to Rome in 1865 and there began to work with marble, sculpting busts of prominent figures as well as biblical and ancient historical works, the Smithsonian said. Her studio became a must-see attraction for American tourists, the USPS added.
Many of her sculptures dealt with themes involving her Native American and Black heritage in the years after the Civil War and the end of slavery.
One of her best known works is The Death of Cleopatra, her 3,000-pound 1876 marble sculpture depicting the Egyptian queen after her suicide by the bite of a venomous asp. The work was presumed lost for over a century but was ultimately rediscovered at a salvage yard in the 1980s, and it is now on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC, the institute said.
The Smithsonian holds eight of her marble sculptures from between 1866 and 1876, including those depicting Moses, Hagar, Cupid and Young Octavian.
The USPS stamp art of Lewis is a casein-paint portrait based on a photo of her by Augustus Marshall made in Boston between 1864 and 1871, the USPS said.
“The work she produced during her prolific career evokes the complexity of her social identity and reflects the passion and independence of her artistic vision,” 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.”
The stamp is the 45th in the USPS’ Black Heritage series honoring individual Black Americans. Honorees in recent years include playwright August Wilson, PBS newscaster Gwen Ifill and dancer and actor Gregory Hines.