Category Archives: Edmonia Lewis


An important discovery has been made of a Bust of Christ by the Afro-Indian sculptor Edmonia Lewis (1842-1907). It is in a collection in Scotland for which she also created a Madonna and Child With Angels.

A work by her of this name was auctioned in London in the latter part of the 19th-century, but with no illustration and little other information.

For a quick intro to Lewis, her life and career, Google “Marilyn Richardson” “Edmonia Lewis” both in quotes.

Tug-O’-War For Cleopatra Statue

My late father, a history professor at DePaul University, would never have spoken the first words of this article. And a few other particulars of the story are less than accurate, but I am delighted to be able to archive the piece here.

This discovery, which sparked a bit of contention,  led ultimately to a happy conclusion with the Death of Cleopatra restored and displayed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC. Definitely worth a visit.




By Ron Grossman, 20 June 1988

Don`t be fooled by your textbooks’ silence, Marilyn Richardson`s father used to tell her. Black folks have a history, too. We just have to go out and find it.

Last month Richardson made her dad proud. In a storeroom of the Forest Park Mall, she found a long-lost work of Edmonia Lewis, the first black American to win international renown as an artist. It was, however, a bittersweet discovery.

“The Death of Cleopatra,” a life-sized sculpture commissioned for the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia, was surrounded by last year`s Christmas decorations and paint cans.

Richardson said Frank Orland, head of the local history society, who had led her to the sculpture, told her that the statue needed “renovating” so it could be put on public view. The Egyptian queen’s white marble face and arms were to be redone in flesh tones, her robe in royal purple, she said Orland told her.

Orland, who also was seeking further information on the work, had taken charge of it two years ago, the latest in a string of caretakers dating to the turn of the century, including a racetrack owner, the Navy, the post office and a Cicero firefighter. None of them, though, knew the sculpture`s full story.

Orland refused to comment on his plans or to allow a photograph of the sculpture to be taken. In a phone interview, he said only, “The Queen is not ready to receive visitors.” He added that he would tell his side of the story in a forthcoming pamphlet, “Cleopatra the Great: Statue of Forest Park.”

“I was excited and heartsick both,” said Richardson, a humanities professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Staring me straight in the face was an important piece of black history which had been missing for 100 years. Only it was …

Digital Public Library of America (DPLA)

I am delighted that my name comes up in this beta project.

  • Provider
  • Digital Commonwealth
  • Owning Institution
  • Digital Commonwealth

Marcus Jones reports on an exhibit at the Boston Athenaeum celebrating Black History Month. Jones notes that the exhibit features photographs of prominent people in Boston’s African American community. Jones interviews Marie Cosindas (photographer) about the photographs. Jones’ report includes shots of the photographs. Jones reports that the exhibit also includes documents, books and artworks representing the African American artistic, cultural and political traditions. Jones interviews Marilyn Richardson (exhibit advisor) about the exhibit. Richardson talks about a display of census documents and artworks by Edmonia Lewis (sculptor) and Allan Crite (artist). Jones’ report includes footage of artworks in the exhibit.   less 

McGraw, New York & New York Central College


McGraw, New York, has a long and rich history. It was the site, in 1849, of the establishment of the trailblazing New York Central College, the first college in the country to enroll students regardless of gender, color, or religious belief, and to employ black and female professors. 

Supporters of the college included Frederick Douglass, Gerritt Smith, and Horace Greely.  Among the many students and professors who went on to distinguish themselves were the sculptor Mary Edmonia Lewis, and Professor Asaph Hall, discoverer of the moons of Mars. The Edmondson sisters, black female students at the school, appear as characters in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  In addition to outstanding and wide-ranging educational opportunities, the college also served as a station on the “underground railroad,”

Whoo-Hoo! Got Quoted in New York Times

You have to read to the part near the bottom about Edmonia Lewis.


Lee B. Anderson filled a Manhattan town house with Gothic and Egyptian Revival furniture and Neo-classical statues of politicians and authors. Pinnacles and sphinxes sprouted from chairs, brackets and inkwells, and shelves were packed with busts of Patrick Henry and Washington Irving, among other luminaries.

Mr. Anderson, a retired art education teacher who died in 2010, often pasted labels onto his purchases, identifying makers and likely previous owners.

The collection is now being dispersed. On Sept. 8 and 9, Neal Auction in New Orleans will offer about 1,000 pieces from the estate, and about 1,000 more will appear in a Sept. 19 auction at Doyle New York. (Lots are mostly estimated at a few thousand dollars each in both sales.) More paintings and furniture are slated for Doyle in November and Sotheby’s in New York in January.

For Sept. 19, Doyle has placed a $20,000 to $40,000 estimate on an 1871 white marble relief of a gentleman in profile, sculptured by Edmonia Lewis. Mr. Anderson believed it represented Ralph Waldo Emerson. But Lewis, who had a black father and an Ojibwa mother, might have found Emerson distasteful; he considered nonwhites inferior.

Moreover, she apparently never met Emerson. “We haven’t found any record of a sitting,” said Albert Henderson, a historian who runs a Web site dedicated to the artist,, and is publishing an e-book about her.

Lewis had a busy workshop in Rome after the Civil War and often sculptured white activists, including William Lloyd Garrison and Robert Gould Shaw. Marilyn Richardson, an art historian who is writing a Lewis biography for the University of North Carolina Press, said the Doyle carving actually depicted the abolitionist Wendell Phillips.

He had flamboyant sideburns like the strands bristling on the 1871 sculpture. “She really captured him,” Ms. Richardson said in a phone interview.

[The medallion sold for $14,000.]

TA-DA. . . !

Major kudos to intrepid scholar/researcher Holly Solano




“For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.”
— G.K. Chesterton, The Rolling English Road, 1914
9 January 2011





Cultural historian Marilyn Richardson has solved one of the persistent mysteries of American art history: where and when did the sculptor Edmonia Lewis die? The answer is, London, England, on 17 September 1907. According to British records, Lewis, whose full name was Mary Edmonia Lewis, had been living in the Hammersmith area of London and died in the Hammersmith Borough Infirmary. She left a modest financial estate.

Beginning with publications from the late 19th-century, the date of her death has been given as anywhere between 1895 and 1911 with no supporting primary evidence. Although she was a prolific and successful artist, Edmonia Lewis maintained an aura of mystery throughout her career with varying stories about her origins as the daughter of a woman of Ojibway descent and a black father from the West Indies. Lewis began her career in Boston, Massachusetts, and moved to Rome, Italy, in 1866. From there she made frequent trips back to the United States to exhibit and sell her work.

Richardson has published widely on Lewis and has written catalogue essays on her work for Sotheby’s and other auction houses. Recent sales of her sculpture from the 1860s have fetched record prices of $250,000 and above.

Now that Edmonia Lewis’s death is documented, Richardson says, the search is still on for official birth records to confirm Lewis’s claim that she was born in upstate New York. Proof of her birthplace and date have so far eluded determined scholars and researchers.


New Edmonia Lewis Discovery

Three Indians in Battle by Edmonia Lewis

By Marilyn Richardson

Gabriel’s Auctioneers in Norwood, Massachusetts, was surprised that almost as soon as illustrated ads for its November 29, 2010, auction appeared on line and in print, the phone started ringing. An unusual number of callers had questions about a particular lot. Among the ad illustrations was a series of pictures of a dramatic piece of sculpture from an Ashland, Massachusetts, estate. The owner had little information about it, other than the possibility that his father had purchased it from an unknown source sometime in the 1950’s.

The 30″ high marble group shows three American Indian men engaged in combat. One figure grabs another by the hair with one hand and wields a knife with his other. A third man has fallen and struggles to pull himself up or to pull one of the other warriors to the ground. A long arrow and a battle-ax lie on the ground. The dynamic and complex composition leads a viewer to circle slowly to sort out the tangle of limbs and loincloths. The sculpture, in need of cleaning and polishing, is signed and dated “Edmonia Lewis/ Fecit A Rome 1868.” It is not given a title.

Lewis, born around 1842 (her birth and death dates are unknown) in upstate New York, was the daughter of a woman of part African-American, part Ojibway descent and a free Black man from the West Indies. Following study at New York Central College in McGrawville and a tumultuous stretch as a student at Oberlin College, Lewis moved in the early 1860’s to Boston where she studied with Edward Brackett and set up shop in the Studio Building on Tremont Street. Her marble bust of the martyred Colonel Robert Gould Shaw established her early reputation and earned her the money and patronage to sail to Europe.

After some months spent traveling in England and on the Continent, Lewis arrived in Rome in 1866. She settled there, working at first in a studio once occupied by the great Neoclassicist Antonio Canova (1757-1822). Throughout the years she made numerous trips back to the United States to exhibit and sell her work and to arrange commissions.

A friend of Anne Whitney, Harriet Hosmer, and Charlotte Cushman, Lewis was a member of a group of expatriate British and American women artists in Italy, dubbed by Henry James “the white, marmorean flock.” About Lewis he wrote: “one of the sisterhood…was a negress, whose colour, picturesquely contrasting with that of her plastic material, was the pleading agent of her fame.”

James’s comment notwithstanding, Lewis’s work was much in demand. Her studio, listed with those of other artists in the best guidebooks, was a fashionable stop for Americans on the Grand Tour, many of whom ordered busts of literary or historical figures to adorn their mantels or front parlors. Her figures based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 epic poem The Song of Hiawatha were particular favorites, coming as they did from the hand of a woman known to be part Native American.

A number of Lewis’s depictions from Longfellow, including groups and single busts of Hiawatha and Minnehaha, have appeared at auction in recent decades, many of them fetching substantial prices. Those works emphasize the romance of the doomed couple, showing their courtship and their marriage. None among those works is of the warlike nature of this group—hence the unexpected flood of inquiries.

Although the theme is atypical of Lewis’s American Indian groups, there is an interesting contemporary reference to what could be this sculpture. In his self-published 1882 memoir, Glimpses of Europe in 1851 and 1867-8, Pennsylvania businessman Alfred Huidekoper describes an early 1868 visit to Lewis’s studio where he observed “…several renderings of Indian subjects, ‘Hiawatha’s Wooing and Wedding,’ ‘Indians Wrestling,’ etc.” While the stripped-down figures and the muscular grappling certainly borrow from Greek and Roman wrestling scenes, the addition of the third figure and the weaponry take this encounter from competition to combat.

Competition for the sculpture itself was definitely spirited, and the room erupted into applause when a phone bidder prevailed with a bid of $287,500 (including buyer’s premium). The underbidder was Michael Grogan of Grogan & Company in Dedham, Massachusetts.

Originally published in the January 2011 issue of Maine Antique Digest. (c) 2010 Maine Antique Digest