A Statue and a Stamp Shed Lights on the Life of Sculptor Edmonia Lewis

A public radio segment about sculptor Edmonia Lewis (1845-ca. 1909) recently roused me to order a sheet of newly issued stamps honoring her and then to seek out the marble monument she made 150 years ago for a family lot in Mount Auburn Cemetery. Stories behind the new stamp and the long-standing sculpture led to more revelations about the artist’s life, through resources I will share here with quotes and links.

sheet of Forever stamps with envelope pointing to the location on the map of Mount Auburn Cemetery for statue Edmonia Lewis created for a family plot

This week, the U.S. Postal Service unveiled a Black Heritage “forever” stamp honoring Edmonia Lewis, who got her start in Boston and became the first Black and Native American sculptor to rise to international prominence.” (quote from NPR Morning Edition, January 28, 2022, report by Meghan Smith)

The stamp art is a casein-paint portrait by Alex Bostic based on a photograph of Lewis by Augustus Marshall made in Boston between 1864 and 1871.
Edmonia Lewis poses for a portrait.
Augustus Marshall, Photographer, circa 1870, Cowan Auctions (via Wikimedia Commons)

Born in Greenbush, NY, Lewis spent most of her career in Rome, where her studio became a must-see attraction for American tourists. In addition to portrait busts of prominent people, Lewis’s work incorporated African American themes, including the celebration of newly won freedoms, and sensitively depicted her Native American heritage as peaceful and dignified.” ( quote from Background paragraphs on USPS National News)

“Lewis’ work is a highlight of Mount Auburn’s Significant Monument Collection with her 1872 marble sculpture of Hygeia, the Goddess of Health and Hygiene, commissioned by pioneering female physician and reformer Harriot Kezia Hunt for her family’s Lot 2630 Poplar Avenue. Historian Marilyn Richardson wrote, “The doctor and the sculptor chose to introduce a woman of ancient power and authority into Mount Auburn’s landscapes of influence, a woman who, in a place of loss and bereavement, they posed striding forth with the attributes of wisdom and well-being.””(quote from Mount Auburn Significant Monument collection, 2017)

By 1872, when Hygeia was created, Edmonia Lewis had already earned income as a sculptor in Boston
and gained support from local patrons to begin her creative career in Europe, but she would regularly return to the Boston area.

“Anyone in the 1860s — from any country in the world, really — who had hopes of developing a professional career as a sculptor, had only one goal, and that was to get to Rome,” [Marilyn] Richardson said. “So Lewis succeeded where many, many others had to only look from a distance at that dream.”(quote from interview with Marilyn Richardson on Boston’s local NPR, Jan 28, 2022)

Though time and weather have taken notable tolls on Hygeia, I was sustained by her persistent presence and the hope that what she stood for is still standing, while barefooted in the snow.

The following link will lead you to a five-minute video with scenes of this monument in different seasons and actors voicing statements of Edmonia Lewis and her contemporaries about her artistic work. earth.sky 2016: “An American in Rome” by  Roberto Mighty as Mt. Auburn Cemetery Artist in Residence.

Additional Valuable Resources : 1. Smithsonian American Art Museum Drawn to Edmonia Lewis

2. Boston Women’s Heritage Trail Downtown Tour #10 Edmonia Lewis Studio

3. Harvard Art Museums: bust of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow by Edmonia Lewis, Photos of Edmonia Lewis by Henry Rocher

8 comments

  1. Tina Gram · · Reply

    Thanks, Deb. I’ve been researching her work since I heard about the stamp. an amazing woman and what she accomplished against all odds. Thanks again for sharing this wonderful tribute. Tina

    1. Thank you, Tina, for your supportive perspective! Putting together this post was more meaningful to me than I had imagined.

  2. Bernard Gurman · · Reply

    Being a MA.local, I find your posting of great interest. Good job..

    1. Thank you, Brad, for your encouraging response to this and other posts!!

  3. Rebecca MacWilliams · · Reply

    Really wonderful! I would never have heard of her ,without your post!! Thanks so much!

    1. Thank you, Bec!
      Though I knew a bit about Edmonia Lewis, I discovered and learned more than I had expected, so I became increasingly eager to share resources in this post.

  4. What a wonderful post, Deb! I loved learning about Edmonia Lewis and will look for this statue when I go to Mt. Auburn again (possibly tomorrow in the warm weather).

    1. Thank you for your spirited response!
      Finding my way to the sculpture in Mt. Auburn was a memorable, meaningful experience for me.

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