TO KICK OFF its celebration of Black History Month, Google turns today to a 19th century artist who burned so bright that her twin gifts of blazing talent and steely determination could not be denied even in the face of her era’s discrimination.
Time and again, sculptor Edmonia Lewis — nicknamed “Wildfire” — faced obstacles and setbacks, yet she persevered as if her greatness were already cast.
Lewis was orphaned at age 9, when she was adopted by maternal aunts and joined their Mississauga tribe.
She endured bitter racial bias at Oberlin College, which she began attending at age 15; she was falsely accused of poisoning classmates and was beaten, and was ultimately denied the chance to graduate.
She then was refused apprenticeships in Civil War-era Boston, until she encountered the well-connected sculptor Edward Brackett, whose clients included well-known abolitionists.
And she would then run a small art studio in Rome (a space formerly used by neoclassicist Antonio Canova), eschewing assistants because she was often without the means of fellow expat artists in Italy.
Yet she would shine as the first woman of American Indian and African American descent to discover international renown in the arts.
Today’s Google Doodle, by artist Sophie Diao, salutes Lewis and her great work “The Death of Cleopatra,” which rests today in Washington at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. (Her work “Forever Free” resides nearby, with the Howard University Gallery of Art.) And the ribboned “Google” wording shines bright, befitting Lewis’s nickname.
Lewis is also freshly represented in Google’s “Arts & Culture” section, which spotlights some of her most iconic marble works, including “Anna Quincy Waterston,” “Old Arrow Maker,” “Poor Cupid” and “Young Octavian,” as well as sculptures inspired by the words of Longfellow, whom she met in Rome.
Mary Edmonia Lewis was born near Greenbush, New York, circa 1844, and died in 1907.
Her great “Death of Cleopatra,” carved in 1876, was believed lost to history till more than a century later, when it resurfaced like a Phoenix, fittingly rediscovered by a fire inspector. It was donated to the Smithsonian in 1994.
Today, Lewis shines as brilliant as a cultural beacon, entirely befitting an American trailblazer.