Inventing Edmonia Lewis, Part II
Last week’s column concluded with African American and Native American sculptor Edmonia Lewis, after an appalling brush with racism in Ohio and a skyrocket success in Boston, sailing for Europe in the autumn of 1865. Following a brief stay in Florence, where famous sculptors Thomas Ball and Hiram Powers furnished her with tools of the trade, she joined a vibrant expatriate community of American artists, especially independent women, living in Rome. Commencing a decade of growing skill, flurried productivity, and worldwide acclaim, Lewis came into her own as an artist and her studio in Rome became a guidebook destination for American and European travelers. “Prejudice against my color and race are not known in Rome,” she said. “I never hear of them there. I am invited everywhere, and am treated just as nicely as if the bluest of blue blood flowed through my veins.”
Although given a stone-cold shoulder in the Eternal City by William Wetmore Story, regarded at that time as the greatest American sculptor, Lewis was welcomed warmly by fellow woman artists Harriet Hosmer, Margaret Foley, Emma Stebbins, and Anne Whitney, as well as actress Charlotte Cushman. Story termed them “a set whom I do not like” and Henry James, his biographer, delivered a memorable putdown, calling them “that strange sisterhood of American ‘lady sculptors’ who at one time settled upon the seven hills [of Rome] in a white, marmorean flock.” James further zinged Lewis: “One of the sisterhood was a negress, whose colour, picturesquely contrasting with that of her plastic material, was the pleading agent of her fame....”
Lewis returned home frequently, going as far as San Francisco to exhibit and sell her sculptures. On her first return home, in 1867, she brought along a plaster of “New England’s poet,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who had sat for his likeness at her studio in Rome. The Christian Register noted, “It has been proposed by some of Longfellow’s friends to have it put in marble, for Harvard. It would be a beautiful thought that the author of ‘Hiawatha’ [a Chippewa, as was Lewis’s mother] should be embalmed in stone by a descendant from Minnehaha.” Indeed, this marble is now at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard, though an exquisite Longfellow of her s has recently turned up in Liverpool.
Another notable work of 1867 was The Freedwoman, also known as Forever Free. Said to have been inspired by the Emancipation Proclamation, its exhibit at Boston’s Tremont Temple prompted The Register to a rapture of high sentiment and low rhetoric: “The noble figure of the man, his very muscles seeming to swell with gratitude; the expression of the right now to protect, with which he throws his arm around his kneeling wife; the ‘Praise de Lord’ hovering on their lips; the broken chain, — all so instinct with life, telling in the very poetry of stone the story of the last ten years.”
Lewis further referenced her dual heritage in such sculptures as The Old Arrow-Maker and his Daughter, with its direct homage to Longfellow’s Hiawatha (the composition depicts Minnehaha “plaiting mats of flags and rushes” and her father “making arrowheads of jasper”); Hagar, the Egyptian maidservant of Abraham’s wife, Sarah, cast out into the wilderness; and busts of abolitionist heroes Robert Gould Shaw, who commanded the black 54th Massachusetts Regiment, William H. Carney, also a hero of the 54th and the first black Congressional Medal of Honor winner, and Charles Sumner, whose bust was exhibited at Atlanta’s Cotton States Exposition of 1895, probably her last formal showing in this country. Lewis’s crowning achievement also honored her race: Cleopatra, exhibited at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876.
William Wetmore Story’s most celebrated sculpture had also been a Cleopatra, described in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Marble Faun (first published in Great Britain in 1859 as Transformation):
Difficulties that might well have seemed insurmountable had been courageously encountered and made flexible to purposes of grace and dignity; so that Cleopatra sat attired in a garb proper to her historic and queenly state, as a daughter of the Ptolemies, and yet such as the beautiful woman would have put on as best adapted to heighten the magnificence of her charms, and kindle a tropic fire in the cold eyes of Octavius. A marvellous repose — that rare merit in statuary, except it be the lumpish repose native to the block of stone — was diffused throughout the figure. The spectator felt that Cleopatra had sunk down out of the fever and turmoil of her life, and for one instant — as it were, between two pulse throbs — had relinquished all activity, and was resting throughout every vein and muscle. It was the repose of despair, indeed; for Octavius had seen her, and remained insensible to her enchantments. But still there was a great smoldering furnace deep down in the woman’s heart. The repose, no doubt, was as complete as if she were never to stir hand or foot again; and yet, such was the creature’s latent energy and fierceness, she might spring upon you like a tigress, and stop the very breath that you were now drawing midway in your throat.
Lewis’s sculpture, on the other hand, “was not a beautiful work,’” wrote artist William J. Clark, Jr., two years after seeing it at the Centennial Exhibition, “but it was a very original and very striking one.... The effects of death are represented with such skill as to be absolutely repellant — and it is a question whether a statue of the ghastly characteristics of this one does not overstep the bounds of legitimate art.” Where other sculptors had depicted Cleopatra in life or, asp in hand, contemplating her end, Lewis showed her post mortem, her head thrown back. The dramatic gesture signaled a break with sculpting conventions in the same way that Jacques Louis David’s Death of Marat had marked a new direction for historical painting.
Cleopatra and its sculptor would move on to Chicago in 1878. When the exhibit there closed, Lewis returned home without her two-ton masterpiece, unable to sell it or pay for its transport. It went into storage and was not seen publicly again until 1892, when it graced a saloon on Chicago’s Clark Street. Next it was acquired by gambler and racing aficionado “Blind John” Condon, who placed it atop the remains of his favorite pony, named Cleopatra, within view of the grandstand of his Harlem Race Track in Forest Park.
And that Chicago suburb is where the statue remained, even after the race track became a golf course, and then a torpedo manufactory. When a U.S. Postal Service facility overtook the site in the 1970s, Lewis’s Cleopatra went to a storage yard in Cicero. There a fire inspector recognized a diamond in the rough and contacted the head of the Forest Park Historical Society, in the person of Frank J. Orland, a dentist who decided to pretty Cleo up with some paint and some “restoration” by a monument carver from a nearby cemetery.
Enter Marilyn Richardson, at that time a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and reigning expert on Edmonia Lewis. She convinced Orland, though not easily, that the sculpture’s optimal display might be at some location other than the shopping mall adjoining the bulk mail center in Forest Park. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art took over and in 1996 restored Cleopatra to public view in an irretrievably damaged but thoughtfully restored form in “Lost and Found: Edmonia Lewis’s Cleopatra.”
Oddly, the outsized success of Lewis’s Cleopatra at Philadelphia in 1876 not only marked the apex of her achievement, it also signaled the onset of her decline (just as for Augusta Savage a monumental sculpture for the New York World’s Fair of 1939 had marked the beginning of the end). For the rest of her life she would scramble to make ends meet, making inspid terracotta putti and busts of long-ago celebrities.
The last American traces I have found of her, in my necessarily limited research, are in Indianapolis in 1878-79 and in New York in October 1879, where she was exhibiting her Veiled Bride of Spring, a sculpture that may not survive. From abroad, we find mention of her in a census report of 1901 that locates her in London — St. Giles in the Field and St. George Bloomsbury, to be precise — with her age given as 59 (birth year of 1842), her profession as “artist and modeller,” and her race as Indian. Marilyn Richardson reported that Lewis signed a guest book in Rome in 1909.
Where and when Mary Edmonia “Wildfire” Lewis died remains unknown, but in the week between publication of the first and second parts of this story, a fevered back-down-the-rabbit-hole search may have revealed her disputed birthdate.
Last week I wrote, “Like others, I failed in my attempts to find her or her family in 1850 census data in Rensselaer County or anywhere else, as Mary or Edmonia or Wildfire.” Now, spurred by a tip from Richardson, with whom I had begun to correspond in recent days, I can state with confidence that Edmonia’s brother who placed her at Oberlin in 1859 was named Samuel; that he had also placed her, previously and unsuccessfully, in the preparatory program at the experimental New York Central College in McGrawville, New York; and that he had made his California “gold-rush fortune” as a barber rather than as a prospector.
I was able to locate this Samuel Lewis in the 1860 census record for California, a mulatto barber born in New Jersey ca. 1830, and then again in Bozeman, Montana in 1870 and 1880. In 1883 he is identified in the Helena Independent as Edmonia’s brother. I was also able to backtrack to 1850 and find him in the first ward of Syracuse, New York, as part of a basketmaking family that was well situated to sell “bead baskets and pin-cushions [to the tourists at] Niagara Falls and Watkins-Glen,” as Edmonia had reported her family’s activity in 1878. Living with Samuel Lewis in 1850 were his widowed father Charles and several children also born in New Jersey, including a girl named Mary, age 17.
This is not the end of the trail. The search for Edmonia Lewis, who covered her own tracks so well, has simply opened onto another direction. The game is afoot.