Sculptor Edmonia Lewis to be honored on 45th Black Heritage stamp Jan. 26
By Charles Snee
Edmonia Lewis, the first sculptor of African American and Native American descent to achieve international recognition, is the subject of the United States Postal Service’s 45th Black Heritage stamp. It will be issued Jan. 26 in the nation’s capital.
The nondenominated (58¢) Edmonia Lewis forever commemorative stamp will go on sale in panes of 20 at post offices across the country on the same day.
An official first-day ceremony will take place at 12:30 p.m. Eastern Time at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and G streets NW, Washington, D.C.
Joshua D. Colin, chief retail and delivery officer for the USPS, will serve as the dedicating official.
The ceremony is free and open to the public. Collectors wishing to attend are encouraged to register via the USPS website.
According to the Postal Service, the stamp artwork is a casein-paint portrait of Lewis based on an Augustus Marshall photograph of the artist taken in Boston sometime between 1864 and 1871.
Biographical details of Lewis’ early years are somewhat limited. The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s online profile of Lewis states she was born in Ohio or New York in 1843 or 1845.
“Her father was a free African-American and her mother a Chippewa Indian. Orphaned before she was five, Lewis lived with her mother’s nomadic tribe until she was twelve years old,” the museum said.
With the encouragement and financial assistance of her older brother, Lewis found her way to Boston in 1863. There she met portrait sculptor Edward Brackett, who served as a mentor and assisted Lewis with setting up her studio.
“With a minimum of training, exposure, and experience, Lewis began producing medallion portraits of well-known abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Sumner, and Wendell Phillips. With sales of her portrait busts of abolitionist John Brown and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the Boston hero and white leader of the celebrated all-African-American 54th Regiment of the Civil War, Lewis was able to finance her first trip to Europe in 1865,” the museum said.
Lewis eventually established a studio in Rome and began producing sculptures based on mythological and biblical subjects. She also made copies of Renaissance sculptures.
The Song of Hiawatha, an epic poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was a major source of inspiration for Lewis when she sculpted a trio of figural groups: The Wooing of Hiawatha, The Marriage of Hiawatha and Minnehaha, and The Departure of Hiawatha and Minnehaha. Longfellow visited Lewis’ studio in 1869.
“Her Moses, copied after Michelangelo, is an example of Lewis’s imitative talents; the sensitively carved Hagar (also known as Hagar in the Wilderness) is probably the masterpiece among her known surviving works. … In Lewis’s sculpture Egypt represents black Africa, and Hagar is a symbol of courage and the mother of a long line of African kings. That Lewis depicted ethnic and humanitarian subject matter greatly distinguished her from other neoclassical sculptors,” the museum said.
Lewis returned to the United States in 1872 to see an exhibition of her work at the San Francisco Art Association.
According to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Lewis was in the United States again in 1875 and was reported to have appeared briefly at a concert in St. Paul, Minn.
“After 1875, facts concerning the remainder of Lewis’s life as well as the date and place of death are obscure and conflicting. She never married, had no children, and was last reported living in Rome in 1911,” the museum said.
Although most of Lewis’ sculptures have not survived, several now reside in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. One of the most important, The Death of Cleopatra, is on display in the Luce Foundation Center on the third floor of the museum.
In announcing the new stamp, the U.S. Postal Service 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.”
The U.S. Black Heritage commemorative series began in 1978 with the release of the 13¢ Harriet Tubman stamp (Scott 1744). Since then, one stamp has been issued in the series each year. The 2021 Black Heritage stamp celebrated playwright August Wilson (Scott 5555).
The 44¢ Oscar Micheaux stamp issued June 22, 2010, was the last denominated stamp in the series. The Edmonia Lewis commemorative is the 12th Black Heritage forever stamp.
The series has featured individuals from the worlds of sports, civil rights activism, politics, business, literature and the arts, and more.
The Postal Service has prepared two pictorial postmarks as first-day cancels for the Edmonia Lewis stamp.
Both the black postmark and the color postmark display Lewis’ name in large serif letters and show stylized floral flourishes.
The black postmark is applied at no charge to collector-submitted envelopes. Both are used on first-day covers prepared and sold by the Postal Service.
Technical details and first-day cancel ordering information for the Edmonia Lewis forever commemorative stamp will be published in a future issue of Linn’s Stamp News.
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