Mary Edmonia Lewis was born in 1845 or 1846. Both of her parents passed away early in her life; her Haitian father in 1847 and her mother of Native American (possibly Mississauga or Ojibwa) and African American descent two years later. She stayed with her mother’s tribe near Niagara Falls until the age of eight. Her brother, Samuel “Sunrise” W. Lewis, provided her financial support throughout her life. He funded her early schooling near Albany and later her attendance at Oberlin College in Ohio.
Her career at Oberlin ended abruptly when in her third year she was accused of poisoning two white female classmates with cantharides. Lewis was acquitted of the charge, though she suffered through a highly publicized trial and a severe beating by white vigilantes. Subsequently accused of stealing art supplies, and not allowed to re-register for courses in 1863, Lewis moved to Boston in 1864. She studied under sculptor Edward A. Brackett. Her brother again provided her with room and board and a small studio space for her work.
She continued on to travel abroad and study in Rome, joining a group of independent American women led by sculptor Harriet Hosmer. A large group of neoclassical sculptors traveled to Italy in the mid nineteenth century due to the availability of fine white marble and the many Italian stone carvers who were adept at transferring a sculptor's plaster models into finished marble products. Lewis rarely employed Italian workmen, and completed most of her work without assistance.
The San Jose Public Library holds three sculptures created by Edmonia Lewis; Asleep (marble, 1871), Awake (marble, 1872) and a bust of Abraham Lincoln (marble, 1871). An earlier version of Asleep, Night (marble, 1870), is held at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Lewis briefly returned to the United States in 1872 holding an exhibit in the San Francisco Art Association’s gallery, showing five marble sculptures. She was invited by the city of San Jose to bring her three remaining unsold works for exhibit in 1873. They were shown at the City Market Hall, and the following week, at the Catholic Fair. A fundraiser was held to purchase Lincoln as a gift to the San Jose Public Library in December of 1873. Sarah Knox-Goodrich, the organizer of San Jose's first Women's Suffrage Association, bought Awake and Asleep. They were later donated to the library some time prior to 1914.
Lewis left the United States in 1875, moving permanently to Rome and then relocating to London in 1901. She passed away September 17, 1907 of Bright’s disease at the Hammersmith Borough Infirmary in London.