Lewis’ Sculptures

The Death of Cleopatra, 1876, marble, detail. Image credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Througout this website, you’ll see public-domain images of Edmonia Lewis’ work. We are not sure how many sculptures Edmonia Lewis created. There are references to several dozen works, although not all of them have survived or been located. The sculptures that are known to have survived are scattered all over, some in museums, some in private collections, with the largest group of her works now in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. To this day, there is no complete visual catalog of Lewis’ work either in print or on line, but there are a couple of beautiful digital exhibits. You might expect a complete gallery here, but since this simple website cannot compete with professionally curated digital exhibits do not want to violate image copyright (the Smithsonian is generous about non-commercial use like this). So what follows are links to the best of these exhibits and a few stray others. That gives you a good start to explore on your own.

Here is the outstanding and lavishly produced Google Arts and Culture Exhibit, in collaboration with the Smithsonian, for a close curated look at some of the most important works by Lewis.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum has eight works by Lewis, including most famously the Death of Cleopatra, which they restored in the 1990s (see my post), but also her Hagar (1875) and one of sculptures featuring Native American themes from Longfellow, The Old Arrow-Maker (in two copies). There is also a portrait medallion by her of Wendell Phillips in the National Portrait Gallery. This “Spotlight” page for Lewis is a good starting place to see them all.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has two small busts from 1868, Minnehaha and Hiawatha. Also see my Resources page for a beautiful Memory Palace podcast episode on these two.

Other collections, which typically only have one or two pieces by here, and often much less lavish funding have less impressive digital displays, or cannot currently create them for other reasons–Howard University, for example, does not have a good on-line display of Forever Free, and the Museum of African American History in Boston does not have one of Lewis’s marble bust of Robert Gould Shaw–although there is a 360 view of it on Google Arts and Culture. But even these less ambitious exhibits reveal the sometimes surprising locations of individual works–such as the two small marbles Awake and Asleep (and a bust of Lincoln) at the Public Library in San Jose, California, which were the end result of donations after Lewis’ two shows and auctions in California in 1873. Oberlin College where Lewis attended college before she left for Boston, now includes in their art collection a bust of James Peck Thomas (1874), Lewis’ only portrait bust of an African-American that has survived.

The only surviving outdoor sculpture by Lewis that we know of is the much-damaged, but recently conserved Hygeia on the grave of Dr. Harriot Kezia Hunt at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass. (Check out the September 2020 article about the history of this work on the Resource page.)

Your Turn:

If you clicked on any of the links, what sculpture(s) caught your eye? Why?

And: What is your preference: going off on your own, following the various links posted here, or reading summaries one one compact page? I am cucious because this is obviously a different approach to presenting you with the information from most other pages on this site, for example the Forever Free page, or that on Black artists of the 19th century. Which approach makes you more curious?

4 thoughts on “Lewis’ Sculptures”

  1. I have what I believe is a Lewis bust labeled “ARROW MAKER.” It is 12 inches tall (including socle) in white marble. It is a family heirloom… from Boston and in my family for close to 100 years, I estimate. I sent a photo to Kirsten Buick, a Leis scholar, and she thinks it is a rare Lewis bust inspired, of course, by HIAWATHA.
    Are you aware of any other Arrow Maker busts? Can you advise me about donating it to a museum?

    1. I am so sorry I didn’t see this post last month! The only sculpture I am aware of is “The Old Arrow-Maker” figurine that shows his whole body. It is at the (Smithsonian Museum of American Art) and about 21″ tall. But she may have very well created other related work, and there are other portrait busts by her. If Professor Buick thinks your bust is possibly a work by Lewis, that is a great sign. I would approach the Smithsonian about donating it, because they have been very good about displaying and doing stories about their Lewis sculptures.

  2. Hi-
    I am curious if you know of any images of the back of the head dress on the “Death of Cleopatra” sculpture. I am deeply interested in Lewis’ work and as a Black sculptor revisiting stone carving myself I am interested in the history here. Three dimensional objects presented in photographs leave out so much information when they are showing only one privileged frontal view. I am always left wondering about what is left out. It is almost like the singular view of history overlooking so many other stories that lie just out of the frame.

    1. Hi William, I am so excited to see a Black sculptor checking out this site. I 100% agree with you that it is frustrating to see 3D works only in “flat” photographic views, almost all frontal or, with some luck, from the side–it is a one-dimensional view of history! Unfortunately, I have not been able to go to DC to see the sculpture, so I am relying on the images from the Smithsonian and a scan of one old photograph, and none of show the back. From descriptions, it seems clear that the back of the throne has more (fake) hieroglyphs, so it is partially worked out, but I have not seen anything about the headdress. But it does seem like Lewis designed the sculpture to be seen from the front and the sides, and not altogether in the round. When I finally get to go to DC and see the work, I will report back!

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