Edmonia Lewis, America’s first Black sculptor, featured on U.S. postage stamp

Lewis is included in the USPS' long-running "Black Heritage" series, honoring American innovators of color.

Edmonia Lewis was a groundbreaking sculptor whose work made a major impression both in America and overseas. Now, she is being immortalized on a United States postage stamp, as reported by Art News.

“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 United States Postal Service (USPS) said in a statement.

Lewis, born of Haitian and Ojibwe descent in the 1840s, is regarded as one of the first artists of her field in North America and Europe to have success. While much of her work has been lost to history, the most prominent of her elegant marble sculptures is Death of Cleopatra, depicting the moments following Cleopatra’s suicide. Carved from 3,000 pounds of Carrara marble, it is currently owned by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C.

Edmonia Lewis Stamp (Credit: USPS)

Regarded as America’s first professional African-American sculptor, Lewis was raised on by her mother’s nomadic tribe after being orphaned before the age of five, according to the Smithsonian American Art Museum. She attended Oberlin College from 1859 to 1863. However, she wasn’t allowed to finish after being accused of poisoning her two white roommates and also accused of stealing art supplies. She would be acquitted of the poisoning charge.

Lewis found her way to Boston, where she would begin honing her craft as a sculptor. In 1865, she moved to Europe, eventually settling in Rome, where she continued to train as a sculptor. Early on, she developed a specialty in crafting busts of abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Sumner and John Brown.

In later years, much of her art was inspired by works of poetry she admired. One such poem, The Song of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, led her to sculpt her Hiawatha and Minnehaha series. Her sculpture Marriage of Hiawatha and Minnehaha is among the only surviving pieces of the series.

The image of Lewis used for the USPS stamp is based on a portrait of her by Augustus Marshall, taken sometime between 1864 and 1871. The USPS has put Lewis’ face on a stamp as part of their “Black Heritage” series. The series has honored numerous innovators of the African Diaspora since first being initiated in 1978, starting with Harriet Tubman.

Since that time, additions to the Black Heritage stamp series has included Jackie Robinson, Scott Joplin, Ida B. Wells and Shirley Chisholm. Prior to Lewis, the most recent Black Heritage stamp featured the face of playwright August Wilson in January 2021.

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