Mary Edmonia Lewis, “Wildfire” (1844-1907) born free in upstate New York, was the first African-American sculptor to achieve international success and spent most of her career in Rome, Italy. Although she was known for giving different information about her past, heritage and life, research suggests she was of mixed parentage – her mother part African and part Ojibwa while her father was reported as Afro-Haitian, or Narragansett, or West Indian Frenchman. She was orphaned at around 3 and went to live with an aunt near Niagara Falls. Her half-brother, Samuel, went west to make his fortune and did in the California gold rush. His sharing of his wealth afforded Lewis education and travel.
Lewis was enrolled in a pre-college program at New-York Central college and although many instructors there became her mentors and records show she was an exemplary student and she learned grammar, Latin, French, arithmetic, drawing, composition and public speaking. Her own words about her education, “Until I was twelve years old I led this wandering life, fishing and swimming . . and making moccasins. I was then sent to school for three years but was declared to be wild.” – Edmonia Lewis
At 15 she was enrolled in Oberlin Academy Preparatory School, changed her name to Mary Edmonia Lewis and began to study art. Although she went to Oberlin, she did not finish. Oh, my what happened was a bad drinking situation and 2 other students got very sick, charges were brought but than dropped for lack of evidence but after that, Lewis seems to have lost her spark for college. From there she went to Rome to study sculpting further and in 1876 at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia he 3,015-pound marble sculpture of the Death of Cleopatra was on display. This is now part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The body of her work is extensive and located all over the US including Cleveland, Boston, Baltimore, Smithsonian and “The Met”. She moved to London from Rome in 1901 and died in 1907 and is buried in St Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery in London. And there are theories and stories that she died in Rome or California.