Over the past decade, the U.S. Postal Service has made a point of using its stamps to honor figures overlooked for years by mainstream art institutions, including Ruth Asawa and Emilio Sánchez. The latest artist to receive the honor is Edmonia Lewis, a sculptor of Haitian and Ojibwe descent who some historians have identified as the first Black artist in her medium to hit it big in North America and Europe.
During the late 19th century, Lewis became known across the U.S. and beyond for elegant sculptures made in marble. Her Death of Cleopatra (1876), crafted from more than 3,000 pounds of Carrara marble, represents the moments following Cleopatra’s death by suicide and endures as her most famous work. (It’s owned by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.) Many of her other sculptures, however, have been lost to history.
Lewis’s postage stamp is based on a portrait that Augustus Marshall took of her sometime between 1864 and 1871. It’s part of the USPS’s “Black Heritage” series, which also includes stamps paying homage to playwright August Wilson, tennis player Althea Gibson, and others.
Lewis’s biography can be difficult to verify because she had a tendency to distort it in order to make herself seem more exotic. Born in 1844, she went on to study at Oberlin College, where she was accused of poisoning her white roommates. During the trial, she was kidnapped and nearly beaten to death. She was later acquitted, though she never finished her studies because the college accused her of stealing art supplies.
Although some fostered Lewis’s talents in the U.S., she eventually left for Rome, a destination for anyone wanting to work with marble. “The land of liberty had no room for a colored sculptor,” she told the New York Times in 1878. Most American sculptors of the era sent out their designs for works to Italy, where they were constructed by artists there. Lewis, who could not afford to do so, had already mastered marble carving while in the U.S., and in Italy, she was able to refine her craft even more.
In a statement about the stamp, 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.”