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date: 10 August 2020

Lewis, Samella maiden name: Sandersfree

American, 20th century, female.

Born 27 February 1924, in New Orleans.

Painter, draughtswoman, watercolourist, print artist (including linocuts), sculptor, art historian. Figures, portraits, genre scenes, landscapes.

Samella Lewis studied with Elizabeth Catlett at Dillard University, New Orleans, and Hampton Institute, Hampton, Virginia. In 1951 she obtained her doctorate from Ohio State University, Columbus, the first African-American woman to receive her doctorate in art history and fine art. In 1975 she co-founded the journal Black Art: An International Quarterly, which in 1984 became the International Review of African-American Art. She also helped to set up the Museum of African-American Art in Los Angeles, and played an important role in promoting and encouraging the work of African-American artists. She taught at Scripps College, Claremont, California, being appointed professor emeritus in 1984.

During the 1940s and 1950s she produced works on paper; during the 1960s and 1970s she used prints to condemn the violence suffered by African-Americans. During the 1990s she painted simplified figures in warm tones, where red, ochre and brown dominated. She is the author or editor of several reference works on African-American artists, such as Black Artists on Art (edited with Ruth Waddy, Contemporary Crafts Publishers, Los Angeles, 1969); The Art of Elizabeth Catlett (Hancraft Studios, Claremont, 1984) and African-American Art and Artists (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1990).

Lewis has taken part in various group exhibitions, including To Conserve a Legacy. American Art from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts in 1999.

Museum and Gallery Holdings

Atlanta (Atlanta University Mus. of Contemporary Art)

Atlanta (High Mus. of Art)

Baltimore (MFA)

Hampton (Hampton University Mus.): Waterboy (1944, oil on canvas)

New York (Metropolitan Mus. of Art)

Oakland (Mus. of California)


  • Powell, Richard J/Reynolds, Jock: To Conserve a Legacy. American Art from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, group exhibition catalogue, Addison Gall. of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, 1999.
  • ‘Samella Lewis’ in The International Review of African-American Art vol. 18, n° 1, periodical, Hampton, 2001.