These resources come in three sections:
- Traditional academic sources, that is, peer-reviewed articles and scholarly books on Edmonia Lewis and on art history related to her.
- Non-scholarly sources (skip ahead with this link) and references in popular culture, including books, articles, and web pages that are dedicated to Edmonia Lewis.
- Primary sources (skip ahead with this link) by which I mean interviews and critical reviews that were published during Edmonia Lewis’ lifetime (or very shortly thereafter, in the early 20th century)
Disclaimers: This is not an exhaustive bibliography of resources on Edmonia Lewis. If I have not read or used a source on Edmonia Lewis and therefore cannot comment on it, I have not included it. And although it includes comments, it is not a traditional annotated bibliography; my comments are quite a bit more freewheeling, but I hope helpful.
I have included hyperlinks on this page when they are available, but not for material that is hiding behind a firewall. Public and university libraries will help you access these resources–librarians are your friends! I would also suggest checking archive.org for many permanently and temporarily available digital works. I will try to make sure to check whether links are broken, but contact me if you discover any, and also if you have suggestions for additional resources.
1. Academic Sources
Bearden, Romare, and Harry Henderson. “Edmonia Lewis.” A History of African American Artists: From 1792 to the Present. New York: Pantheon, 1993, pp. 54-77.
This important early overview dedicated to African-American artists was co-written by the Black artist Romare Bearden, and his friend Harry Henderson, who completed the work after Bearden’s death in 1988. It is the most detailed and well-researched biographical sketch that had been published of her up to that time, and not only Henderson himself (later with his son) but several other scholars began looking for her art and for more documents relating to her around this time, correcting some of this early research later on. Even though it is not helpful in terms of art history, the article documents how ground-breaking it was to make a case to take Edmonia Lewis seriously as an artist as late as the early 1990s.
Boime, Albert. “Emancipation and the Freed.” The Art of Exclusion: Representing Blacks in the Nineteenth Century. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1990, pp. 153-220.
In this chapter of his book, Boime discusses emancipation sculptures, and includes Lewis’ Forever Free and The Death of Cleopatra. This was incredibly helpful on understanding Forever Free better in the context of other sculptures and monuments that addressed abolition and celebrated emancipation, most of them by white men. (I disagree with him on The Death of Cleopatra.). Boime organizes his own discussion around a 1916 book on these sculptures by Freeman Murray (see Primary Sources).
Buick, Kirsten Pai. Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History’s Black and Indian Subject. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010.
This is the most in-depth study of Lewis’s art to date, by the foremost expert on Lewis: Buick started to work on Lewis in the 1990s, and contributed an essay to the important exhibition catalog Three Generations of African-American Women Sculptors: A Study in Paradox, edited by Leslie King Hammond and Tritobia Hayes Benjamin (Philadelphia: Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum, 1996). This book is not primarily a biography (although it covers Lewis’s life to some extent), but an art-historical and historical investigation of her sculptures that does justice to the complicated cross-currents that go into key works, and into Edmonia Lewis’ invention of herself as an artist. Her chapters on Forever Free and on the Death of Cleopatra were crucial to my understanding of these two works (even where I ended up disagreeing with her to an extent). She also addresses the difference between Robert Duncanson, a Black painter who also had European academic training, and Lewis in one of her chapters. And if you want to find out more about the Native American themes in Lewis’ sculpture and the tricky question of the influence of Longfellow, Buick is your starting point!
Collins, Lisa. “Economies of the Flesh: Representing the Black Female Body in Art.” In Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, Ed. Skin Deep, Spirit Strong: The Black Female Body in American Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2002. Pp. 99-127.
Collins addresses Lewis specifically on pp. 108-109 only, but the article (and this entire collection) was a good starting point for thinking about how thinking about what it means when Black female artists represent Black female body, and why this is so especially complicated for the 19th century, when there were so few artists who were both Black and female, and when the racial divisions between Black and White bodies were so harshly drawn. Farrington and Nelson address this as well, as well as several much more recent studies that I still need to fully absorb.
Dabakis, Melissa. A Sisterhood of Sculptors: American Artists in Nineteenth-Century Rome. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014.
This book on the women sculptors of Rome provides an excellent broader feminist and historical context for Lewis’ presence in Rome. It gave me a really good understanding of these women’s neoclassical sculptures, and although Lewis is only one among many artists here, the chapter on “Antislavery Sermons in Stone” (Chapter 6, 149-180) juxtaposes Lewis’ Forever Free with the work of the many white sculptors who sought to make statements on abolitionism with their art. She also discusses a rarely-addressed sculpture by Lewis, Preghiera (1866) in this context, and gave me new insights into the kneeling female figure in Forever Free.
Driskell, David: “Black Artists and Craftsmen in the Formative Years, 1750-1920,” from Two Centuries of Black American Art. Exhibition Catalog. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1976. 11-58.
This seminal early article in Black art history only briefly mentions Edmonia Lewis, as the only female artist, along with painters Joshua Johnson, Robert Duncanson, Edward Bannister, and Henry Ossawa Tanner, and engraver Patrick Reason. But it is indispensable for its discussion of folk art and crafts made by Black men, in the North and in the South, before the Civil War, and for making clear what is lost to us because the lives of enslaved Black people and the art they made was not valued. Farrington (up next) provided the necessary context to include the art made by women during the same time period.
Farrington, Lisa. Creating Their Own Image: The History of African-American Women Artists. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
This was my introduction to African-American women artists–an indispensible resource if you want to understand the intersectional art made by Black women in the US, against the backdrop of how they were typically represented in American culture (Chapter 1). Farrington covers art all the way until the 2000s, but she starts in Chapter 2 with the–mostly undocumented and lost–arts and crafts Black enslaved women created, and her chapter on 19th-century women artists (Chapter 3, “The Nineteenth-Century Professional Vanguard,” pp.56-75) covers Lewis in a few pages, but also provides the context of the handful of other known, named women artists of color in the second half of the 19th century, including Meta Warrick Fuller (1877-1968), a Black female sculptor of the next generation whom I hope to explore in a blog soon.
Gold, Susanna W. “The Death of Cleopatra / The Birth of Freedom: Edmonia Lewis at the New World’s Fair.” Biography Vol. 35, Issue 2 (Spring 2012): 318-341.
As the title suggests, this is a relatively limited article about Lewis’ Death of Cleopatra. I am usually generous when I read peer-reviewed scholarly work, because even when I don’t agree with someone’s analysis, the work they’ve done is typically important and gives me new ideas. But this article contains several factual errors and comes to a conclusion about the sculpture that is deeply problematic, namely that Lewis makes her Cleopatra specifically Greek and uses her to represent the “death of the white South” after the Civil War.
Kasson, Joy S. Marble Queens and Captives: Women in Nineteenth-Century American Sculpture. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1990.
This older analysis of 19th-century representations of women in sculpture only mentions Lewis in passing, but stakes out important feminist territory in terms of addressing not just the figure of the “queen” and the “captive,” but also the expectations for artists, patrons, and a gendered audience when it comes to sculpture in neoclassical sculpture.
Morse, Heidi. “Roman Studios: The Black Woman Artist in the Eternal City, from Edmonia Lewis to Carrie Mae Weems.” Classicisms in the Black Atlantic: Classical Presences. Edited by Ian Moyer, Adam Lecznar, and Heidi Morse, 133-162. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.
This article offers some really interesting and unexpected links between the ways that Edmonia Lewis and Carrie Mae Weems (a 20th-century Black American photographer) experienced and “constructed” Rome. Since Lewis lived in Rome for so many years, focusing on its geography, public art, and internal politics as a backdrop for her work gives us some really crucial insight. (The book is available online, but behind a paywall.)
Nelson, Charmaine. The Color of Stone: Sculpting the Black Female Subject in Nineteenth-Century America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007. 159-180.
This book starts out not with Black artists, but with the representation of Black female bodies in the classic white marble associated with ethnic Whiteness that was the norm in neoclassical sculpture. In many ways. Nelson also compares the women sculptors in Rome (among whom Lewis lived and worked) to their male competitors, as they all tackle similar topics (such as the death of Cleopatra). But it all builds up to Nelson’s chapter on Lewis’ Death of Cleopatra (Chapter 7, “The Black Queen in the White Body,” pp.159-180), she compares the sculpture primarily with William Wetmore Story’s Cleopatra (on which she also has a chapter). Although that leaves out other works with Cleopatra as a theme that may have had more influence on Lewis, Nelson’s analysis of Lewis’s sculpture is thought-provoking and, like Buick’s work, ground-breaking in terms of asking questions about Lewis and Black women’s bodies.
Perry, Regenia, ed. Free Within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art. Introduction by Kinshasha Holman Conwill. Washington, D.C. ; National Museum of American Art in association with Pomegranate Artbooks, 1994.
This is a book to accompany a traveling exhibition on Black artists (across two centuries) in 1993-1994, consisting of short biographical sketches and examples of the works. Edmonia Lewis is covered on pp. 134-141, but although the sketch is short (and of course doesn’t have the post-2000 updates to her biography), it places her work in the context of other artists in one of the key exhibitions with this focus in the 1990s. The preface and the introduction give a good overview of the few art collections and exhibits of Black artists up to this point.
Richardson, Marilyn. “Edmonia Lewis at McGrawville: The Early Education of a Nineteenth-Century Black Woman Artist.” Nineteenth-Century Contexts, Vol. 22 (2000), pp. 239-256.
This article provides quite a lot of historical context for Central College, the school in McGrawville, NY, where Edmonia Lewis was enrolled as a “college prep” student and exposed to the abolitionist movement. Meticulously researched, it is the main source for the summary of this time period in the sketch of Lewis’ Life, although the transcript of her report card from her time at Central College is part of Henderson’s website (see below).
Richardson, Marilyn “Edmonia Lewis’ The Death of Cleopatra: Myth and Identity.” The International Review of African American Art 12:2 (1995). pp. 36-50.
Richardson’s analysis of Lewis’ Death of Cleopatra, which she was instrumental in rediscovering (not that one would be able to tell from the article that she identified it when it was discovered in mall storage in the 1980s!) is the starting point for every scholar who has written about the sculpture since. She addresses the question of the “Nubian” vs. the “Greek” idea of Cleopatra in the 19th century and its ties to different constructions of “race” and compares it with a range of other neoclassical sculptures.
Richardson, Marilyn. “Friends and Colleagues: Edmonia Lewis and Her Italian Circle.” In Sculptors, Painters, and Italy: Italian Influence on Nineteenth-Century American Art. Ed. Serpa Salenius. Padua: Il Prato Casa, 2009. 99-110.
While many scholars have now become interested in Lewis’ transatlantic life in Italy, Richardson was again the starting point for much of this research. Here, the focus is on Rome, but Richardson also went into the details of her short time in Florence in “Edmonia Lewis and the Boston of Italy,” published in the on-line proceedings of a local conference in Florence in 2008.
Wilson, Judith: “Hagar’s Daughters: Social History, Cultural Heritage, and Afro-US Women’s Art.” In Bearing Witness: Contemporary Works by African-American Women Artists. Jontyle Theresa Robinson, Curator. Traveling Exhibition. New York: Spelman College and Rizzoli International Publications, 1996. 95-112.
Wilson placedEdmonia Lewis in the context of the beginning of Black women activists, pushing against the trend to discuss her primarily in terms of her relationship with white abolitionists. She provides some of the missing context on Black activism, and traces the kneeling woman in Lewis’ sculpture Forever Free to models and ideas that involve both Black and white abolitionists and feminists. She briefly addresses both Hagar and the Death of Cleopatra and claims a direct line from the Cleopatra to Meta Warrick Fuller’s Ethiopia Awakening.
Woods, Naurice Frank Jr. “An African Queen at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition 1876: Edmonia Lewis’s The Death of Cleopatra.” Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism Vol 9, Issue 1: 2008, pp. 62-82.
This article does not offer much in the way of new arguments about The Death of Cleopatra, relying mostly on Richardson and Nelson, but I found several points about the role of women artists (and secondarily, Black artists) at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia useful, as well as some of the statistics on the number of exhibiting artists (152 out of 673 sculptors were Americans; Lewis was one of two artists and the only Black sculptor, but one of several women whose work was exhibited.)
Woods, Naurice Frank Jr. Race and Racism in Nineteenth-Century Art: The Ascendency of Robert Duncanson, Edward Bannister, and Edmonia Lewis. Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press, 2021.
Woods’ book has a long (50+ page) chapter on Lewis that puts her in the context of the other two similarly under-discussed Black artists of the 19th century. He does add quite a bit of new primary source material on Lewis’ exhibits and interviews in the 1860s and 1870s, taking full advantage of the rapid increase in digitally available and searchable newspaper articles. But there was not much by way of analysis of her works or reinterpretation of the biographical information from previous biographies that he draws on. Sometimes that’s hiding in the footnotes, which contain some excellent detective work.
2. Non-Scholarly Sources / EL in Popular Culture
Note: I have arranged these in reverse chronological order, rather than alphabetically, so that you always see the most recent articles on-line or in the press at the top. I have not traveled very far back in time, but there isn’t much to travel to once you get to ca. 2000! What is wonderful about tracing Lewis’ appearance in the popular media is that the experts on her and the museums that exhibit her works make appearances here. Please let me know if you find additional pieces that should be added here.
Cheng, Lucia. “After More Than 150 Years, Sculptor Edmonia Lewis Finally Gets Her Degree.” Smithsonian.org. July 20, 2022. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/sculptor-edmonia-lewis-receives-her-degree-180980429/
Just a brief note in the Smithsonian, because Oberlin has posthumously awarded Edmonia Lewis her degree–she was not able to enroll for her last semester, in the spring of 18, because of vaguely reported scandals.
Rossen, Jake. “Rediscovering Edmonia Lewis, Pioneering Sculptor of Cleopatra and Christ.” Mental Floss. July 15, 2022. https://www.mentalfloss.com/posts/edmonia-lewis-sculptor
This is a fairly detailed profile, in the Mental Floss “retrobituaries” category, with some handy hyperlinks to various other articles and also to newspaper clippings. Nothing new or earth-shaking, though.
Lynne, Jessica. “When Cleopatra Died Again.” Smithsonian Magazine. March 2022, p.18-20. Also at https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/when-cleopatra-died-again-180979562/
Nothing new here that other stories about Lewis’ Death of Cleopatra don’t already cover, but it’s nice to see that Lewis is regularly highlighted by the Smithsonian (who owns the sculpture and has it on display) in its print magazine and not just on the web (see below for a few of the relevant older links).
“Edmonia Lewis, featured on new Black Heritage postage stamp, started her sculpture career in Boston” WBGH Radio. Jn 28, 2022. https://www.wgbh.org/news/arts/2022/01/28/edmonia-lewis-featured-on-new-black-heritage-postage-stamp-started-her-sculpture-career-in-boston
Such a thrill to have a detailed (well, 7-minute) interview with Marilyn Richardson, THE scholar who put Edmonia Lewis back on the map in the 1980s, on Boston’s NPR affiliate, WBGH. Have a listen. The release of the stamp has had such a major effect on her visibility. For Dr. Richardson’s research, see above under “Scholarly Resources.”
“Interlochen Arts Academy to present in 2024 the staged premiere of ‘Edmonia,’ an opera by William Banfield.” Interlochen Arts Academy Press Release. Jan 26, 2022. https://www.interlochen.org/news/interlochen-arts-academy-to-present-in-2024-staged-premiere-edmonia-opera-william-banfield
There will be an opera about Edmonia Lewis! As per this 2022 article, it is supposed to be performed at Interlochen Arts Academy, an arts high school in Michigan. The school was working with the composer, William Banfield, starting that spring. Apparently, the opera was initially commissioned by Toni Morrison in the early 2000s, and I would love to find out more about that! In May of 2023, samples from Banfield’s opera were included in a concert by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra that is reviewed here in the Madison Capital Times.
USPS. “US Postal Service Reveals New Stamps for 2022.” USPS.com. Nov. 1, 2021. https://about.usps.com/newsroom/national-releases/2021/1101-usps-reveals-new-stamps-for-2022.htm
This was one of the first announcements about the stamp, which came out in January 2022. I am truly excited to see that the USPS is honoring Edmonia Lewis on the 2022 Black History stamp, and that so many news outlets have picked this up. I used the stamps all year long in 2022.
“Breaking the Marble Ceiling: A Comic About Edmonia Lewis.” Illustrations by Rachel Bivens. Drawn to Art: Ten Tales of Inspiring Women Artists, Smithsonian American Art Museum, n.d. https://americanart.si.edu/art/art-comics/edmonia-lewis-comic
Geared towards younger readers, but a beautifully executed comic-style story about Edmonia Lewis, part of a 10-part series also featuring other women artists, many of them women of color. Each part is illustrated by a different student-illustrator from the Ringling College of Art and Design. Great project.
“‘Unravelling the Mystery: Edmonia Lewis on Bute.” Roundtable Discussion at Mount Stuart, featuring Lisa Harrington as moderator and Charmaine Nelson, Kirsten Pai Buick, and Susannah Thompson. October 22, 2021 live recording. https://www.mountstuart.com/news/edmoniaonbute
The key reason for Edmonia Lewis to be featured in news articles in 2021 has been the fact that her Bust of Christ (ca. 1870), acquired by a long-time patron, the Scottish aristocrat John Crichton-Stuart, Marquess of Bute, was put on public display at Mount Stuart, the estate of the Bute family, after being in storage for over 100 years. To celebrate the installation, the Mount Stuart Trust put together an all-star panel of scholars discussing Lewis and Lewis’ relationship to her patron, who was, like her, a devout Catholic. You’ll find books by Harrington, Buick and Nelson listed above under the scholarly resources. I attended the roundtable when it was broadcast live on zoom, which was amazing (Marilyn Richardson, the biographer on whose shoulders everyone working on Lewis stands was quietly listening in the audience; I hope she enjoyed the shout-outs she got several times). But the link above will take you to a recording of the event.
Ewing, Gigi. “Edmonia Lewis’ Story Part of a Continuing Culture of Violence Against Black Women.” Oberlin Review. March 5, 2021. https://oberlinreview.org/22935/news/edmonia-lewis-story-part-of-a-continuing-culture-of-violence-against-black-women/
I usually do not include minor articles in newspapers, magazines, and websites on Edmonia in this list (they do come up with some regularity, and I am glad to see that, but they usually do not present any new information). But I am including this piece from the Oberlin student paper because it is a good witness to the fact that Oberlin still struggles to reckon with the complicated legacy of Lewis’ presence on campus.
Walls, Jasmine, Bex Glendining and Kieran Quigley. Seen: Edmonia Lewis. True Stories of Marginalized Trailblazers. Los Angeles: Boom Box Comics, 2020.
This absolutely lovely and well-researched graphic novel, intended for middle and high schoolers, does a wonderful job giving an overview of Lewis’ life story, as well as of her recovery in the 1980s and 19990s (with a well-deserved nod to Marilyn Richardson and her research on Lewis). The slim 80-page paperback is both affordable and a good introduction to Lewis for kids. The last 10 page are a teaching guide that I would find very helpful if I assigned the text to middle- or high-schoolers. Here is the comic book studio’s page for the book, with some visuals and additional information.
Elicone, Corinne. “Hygeia: Women in the Cemetery Landscape.” Nursing Clio. September 3, 2020. nursingclio.org/2020/09/03/hygeia-women-in-the-cemetery-landscape.
This article by the director for outreach at the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass, provides a clear and well-researched overview of the history and significance of Lewis’ Hygeia, her (now very weather-damaged) sculpture of the Greek goddess of health, commissioned by Harriot Kezia Hunt (1805-1875), the first woman to practice medicine professionally in the US and a well-known Boston activist for women’s rights and abolitionism, for her own grave.
George, Alice. “Sculptor Edmonia Lewis Shattered Gender and Race Expectations in 19th-Century America.” Smithsonian Magazine. Smithsonianmag.com, August 22, 2019. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/sculptor-edmonia-lewis-shattered-gender-race-expectations-19th-century-america-180972934/
A nice write-up with many images, mostly from the Smithsonian collection. There is also a related podcast, “Finding Cleopatra,” in the Smithsonian’s Sidedoor series, Season 4, Episode 4 (released December 11, 2019).
Rice, John and Gail Tanzer. The Ghost of Cleopatra. Self-published, May 2019.
I yet have to read this book, a work of fiction about Lewis’ Cleopatra, written with young adults in mind. Local Forest Park journalist John Rice was involved in the original negotiations to donate The Death of Cleopatra to the Smithsonian after it was rediscovered in the early 1990s. In January 2022, apropos of the release of the stamp, Rice told the story to a Chicago TV station here, but there are a lot of minor details that are misrepresented; also, Marilyn Richardson’s identification of the sculpture is not even mentioned.
Nelson, Katie and Olivia Meikle. “The Sculptor Edmonia Lewis.” Whatshername. Podcast, Episode 32. January 28, 2019. https://www.whatshernamepodcast.com/edmonia-lewis/
This 40-minute podcast that (unlike the other podcasts listed) covers Lewis’ entire life is based on an interview with Charmaine Nelson, art historian at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, who wrote The Color of Stone (see above). A good introduction (a little slow), with an emphasis on the expat community in Rome as the context for Lewis’ work.
Green, Penelope. “Overlooked No More: Edmonia Lewis, Sculptor of Worldwide Acclaim.” New York Times, July 25, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/25/obituaries/overlooked-edmonia-lewis-sculptor.html
This may be behind a paywall for you if you have used up your free New York Times articles. But most libraries will provide access through a database. It is a nice “closing of the circle,” since the New York Times featured several early interviews and articles in the 1870s about Lewis.
Chernick, Karen. “The Unlikely Success of Edmonia Lewis, a Black Sculptor in 19th-Century America. artsy.net. Feb 1, 2018. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-success-edmonia-lewis-black-sculptor-19th-century-america
This gives another great and exceptionally readable overview of Lewis’ unusual career as a sculptor, with good, clear references to sources. It ends with the story of how Forever Free ended up at Howard University, thanks to James Porter, the art and art history professor who established African-American art history as a field, and who purchased it in 1967 with his own personal funds.
DiMeo, Nate. “Two Small Sculptures.” Podcast. The Memory Palace, The Met Residency, Episode 8. September 5, 2017. https://thememorypalace.us/two-small-sculptures-the-met-residency-episode-8/.
This short but beautiful reflection by Nate DiMeo on his breathtaking podcast series The Memory Palace (can you tell I am a fan?) was part of his series related to spaces and art works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Take not-quite-ten-minutes of your time and listen to him talk about two of Lewis’ sculptures with Native American themes, Hiawatha and Minnehaha (both 1868) that are exhibited at the Met.
Wilson, Tracy and Holly Frey. “Edmonia Lewis.” Stuff You Missed in History Class. January 11, 2017. https://www.iheart.com/podcast/stuff-you-missed-in-history-cl-21124503/episode/edmonia-lewis-30207656/
This half-hour podcast is well-researched (as is par for the course for “Stuff You Missed”) and covers the basics of Lewis’ biography well; the last third provides a detailed account of how the Death of Cleopatra was found after being missing for many decades. Wilson and Frey are very conversational but never lose the tight focus on their subject. Nice shout-out to Marilyn Richardson and her tremendous achievements in researching Lewis.
Diao, Sophie. “Celebrating Edmonia Lewis.” Google Doodle. February 1, 2017. https://www.google.com/doodles/celebrating-edmonia-lewis.
Is getting a commemorative Google Doodle a sign of popular success and wide recognition? I don’t know. But there is a nice little article to go with it that also includes the link to the Google Arts & Culture exhibit on Edmonia Lewis (see Lewis’ Sculptures).
Lavin, Talia. “The Life and Death of Edmonia Lewis, Spinster and Sculptor.” The Toast. November 2, 2015. the-toast.net/2015/11/02/the-life-and-death-of-edmonia-lewis . (Internet Archive Wayback Machine).
This is both a very nice tribute to Lewis, and a wonderful write-up of an interview with Lewis scholar Marilyn Richardson about Lewis’ self-promotion, the rediscovery of the Death of Cleopatra, and the location of her death records and her gravestone. (It also serves well as another memorial toast to the Toast.net, which was such a wonderful site; Talia Lavin has gone on to amazing work at the New Yorker and with her 2020 book Culture Warlords.)
Henderson, Harry and Henderson, Albert. The Indomitable Sprit of Edmonia Lewis: A Narrative Biography. Milford, CT: Esquiline Hill Press. 2012.
I went back and forth on how to classify this biography. It is a well-researched book that is based on both Harry and Albert Henderson’s original research over many decades (Albert continued his father’s work after his death), and with its many footnotes, it has many of the traits of an academic biography. The Hendersons unearthed a lot of archival material that was never addressed before, corrected and added dates for her travel, found unknown addresses, and genealogical information. But it is a self-published book (available as an e-book and in print, and very affordable) and sometimes deals in speculation far beyond the archival material, so you have to take it with a grain of salt. But I found it engaging to read, and it is the only book-length biography of Lewis, based on original archival research, and therefore very helpful in finding primary sources.
“Sculptor’s Death Unearthed: Edmonia Lewis Died in 1907.” Press Release. Artfix Daily, January 9, 2011. https://www.artfixdaily.com/artwire/release/2786-sculptors-death-unearthed-edmonia-lewis-died-in-1907.
This is a brief press release about Marilyn Richardson’s discovery of Edmonia Lewis’ death date, will, and burial site. Albert Henderson had also discovered it by then but not released the information. Following the press release, he wrote a post on his website (see below) about his discoveries, which includes images of the hospital death record and the death notice. (It’s important to remember that until the 2010s, no one had been able to establish Lewis’ whereabouts after 1895, or when she had died.) Note: Artfixdaily.com does have a couple of other posts by Marilyn Richardson, from 2010 and 2015, about additional sculptures by Lewis that were discovered–a small sculpture showing three Native Americans in combat, dated 1868, and an 1870 bust of Christ made for the Marquis of Bute, one of Lewis’ most famous British patrons.
Henderson, Albert. Edmonia Lewis. www.edmonialewis.com. 2005. (Last updated June 2020.)
This website accompanies the Hendersons’ self-published biography and provides useful supplemental material, including a bibliography and a very useful chronology, as well as a running blog that for many years noted new discoveries and mentions of Edmonia Lewis in the press; it has also kept track of auctions of Lewis’ art and photographs of her, but it has not been updated in recent months. It was the first and only website dedicated exclusively to Edmonia Lewis until I launched this project, which is not at all intended to be a “competitor.” I have found it a valuable resource and appreciate the labor that went into making the included resources available.
May, Stephen. “The Object at Hand.” Smithsonian Magazine. September 1996. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-object-at-hand-4-121205387/.
This is the first of many articles that the Smithsonian has published in its magazine (print and on-line versions) since it was first exhibited Lewis’ Death of Cleopatra after its discovery and restoration. To accompany that initial special exhibit (June 7, 1996-April 14, 1997), May tells the story of the sculpture’s discovery as well as providing the basics of Lewis’ biography as far as it was known in the mid-1990s. I have not included all of these articles here, but they are easy to find via the Smithsonian Magazine website.
3. Primary Sources (19th and early 20th century)
Note: This is a work in progress, because I am only beginning to work with many of the primary sources that mention Lewis. But here are a few key articles and books that do so. In this section, it made sense to go in chronological order, starting with the earliest pieces and moving forward. These texts are all in the public domain and should be available on HathiTrust, GoogleBooks, and/or archive.org, and in various newspaper archives as well. I have listed the database that I used for access; it is typically not the only one.
“The Studios of Rome.” The Art-Journal. Vol. 32 (March 1870), 77-78. (HathiTrust).
In this critics’ discussion, Lewis’ studio is listed among the other “lady-sculptors” as “a lady of colour” whose bust of Longfellow and sculpture of Hagar as a “cast-out bondswoman” are specifically specifically mentioned. This piece is often cited because it also mentions a sculpture by a British sculptor and friend of Lewis’, Isobel Cholmley, because she has on display “a small bust of Miss Edmonia Lewis, a lady of colour,… showing the mixed races from which descends” because of the way the hair is sculpted. (The sculpture by Cholmley is lost.) See my post on the photographs of Lewis for more.
“Seeking Equality Abroad: Why Miss Edmonia Lewis, the Colored Sculptor, Returns to Rome – Her Early Life and Struggles.” New York Times, December 29, 1878, p.5. (TimesMachine.)
Based on an interview in which Lewis talked “frankly” about her early years but also about the prejudice she encounters in the US, but the article is a hodgepodge of half-truths, either distorted by Lewis or by the condescending and sloppy reporter. The most famous passage from this interview: “I was practically driven to Rome… to find a social atmosphere where I was not constantly reminded of my color. The land of liberty had no room for a colored sculptor.” She also makes no bones about wanting to return to Rome as soon as she can: “I like to see the opera, and I don’t like to be pointed out as a negress.”
Majors, Monroe Alphonse. “Edmonia Lewis.” Noted Negro Women: Their Triumphs and Activities. Chicago: Donohue and Henneberry, 1893. Pp. 27-30. (HathiTrust.)
Majors, a Black physician who provides short sketches of over a hundred notable Black women of his time, emphasizes Lewis’ lack of education, poverty, and friendlessness upon arriving in Boston to drive home his moral that an orphan “of lowly birth” can make it and be “in herself a great prophecy of the possibilities of her sisters in America,” now that she is famous and “has a place in the admiration of the lovers of art on two continents” (30). His account is largely based on an earlier, similar sketch by Phoebe Hanaford that I still need to locate.
Langston, John Mercer. “Chapter XIII: A Rare and Interesting Case which Tested His Powers.” From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capitol: The First and Only Negro Representative in Congress from the Old Dominion. Hartford, CT: American Publishing Company, 1894. Pp. 171-180. (HathiTrust)
This chapter in the memoirs of John Mercer Langston, first Black attorney to be called to the Ohio bar, and later one of the first Black congressman to serve in the House of Congress, provides his account of the scandal involving Edmonia Lewis at Oberlin, in which he functioned as the defense attorney and got her exonerated. Lewis is unnamed, but her identity only thinly veiled–he says she has been “very justly termed the first artist of the negro race of the Wester continent” and holds an “exalted place in American and European consideration” (180); the connection was pointed out by scholars as early as the late 1960s. Langston stresses the severity of the injuries Lewis sustained when she was attacked before the trial, as well as the threats he himself received as her attorney. But he is rather vague on the defense strategy apart from making clear that there was no proof of poisoning, since neither alleged victims’ “contents of the stomach or the bowels had been preserved and analyzed” (175).
James, Henry. William Whetmore Story and His Friends. From Letters, Diaries, and Recollections. London: Thames and Hudson, 1903. (HathiTrust)
These reminiscences of Henry James are often more about the atmosphere in Rome when he was part of the group of American expat community of artists and intellectuals there, especially because he appareantly not think much of Story as a sculptor. This is why he devotes quite a bit of time to discussing (and mocking) the female sculptors, sandwiched between letters from Story to James Russell Lowell. His remarks on the “white marmorean flock” of female sculptors and Lewis’ role among them (see pp. 257-262) keep being quoted because the famous novelist’s opinion on them is seen as representative–which is a bit doubtful.
Murray, Freeman Henry Morris. Emancipation and the Freed in American Sculpture: A Study in Interpretation. Introduction by John Wesley Cromwell. Washington, DC: Published by the Author, 1916. (HathiTrust.)
The segments on Edmonia Lewis are short and partly based on a confusion between a lost sculpture of a freedwoman that Murray had read about, and Forever Free (see p.20-23, and an important postscript, 225-226). But he directly addresses gender and the “whitening” of the female figure, and the fact that there is a book-length discussion by a Black author on the topic on sculptures that commemorate emancipation is astonishing–as Boime, who wrestles with Murray in detail, points out. Murray also discusses Meta Warrick Fuller’s Emancipation Group from 1913, as well as a number of representations of Black people rarely discussed in art history, such as John Rogers’ popular sentimental figure groups, sold by the thousands as plaster casts.