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Authors: Harry Henderson


The Indomitable Spirit of Edmonia Lewis

BOOK: The Indomitable Spirit of Edmonia Lewis
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Table of Contents

Title Page





Book One - Boston

BOOK TWO – The World

BOOK TWO, Part Two – The Artist Becomes the Symbol

EPILOGUE – Post Scripts and Traces





NOTES - continued


The Indomitable Spirit of


A Narrative Biography

By Harry Henderson and Albert Henderson




Esquiline Hill Press

Milford CT



Made in the United States of America

Contact: ah at

© 2012 Albert K Henderson. All rights reserved.

No part of this work may be reproduced without prior permission of the publisher.


Cover design: Theodore Leon Henderson



ISBN 978-1-58863-451-1 PDF Electronic Book

ISBN 978-1-58863-452-8 EPUB Electronic Book


Suggested Cataloging



This book is dedicated to the late Romare Howard Bearden, a distinguished African-American humanist and one of the most creative artists of his century. Bearden and my father, a professional writer, decided in 1987 it would be the third venture of a successful partnership dating to the 1960s.
Bearden’s name would grace the title page but for the mortal limit that halted his contribution too long ago.

Based on their twenty-year friendship, Bearden had recruited my father to help him rectify a glaring omission in cultural resources. Barely a word about important African Americans appeared in the canons of art history. Together they pioneered research and wrote biographies to remedy the gap. They published
Six Black Masters of American Art
in 1972 (Doubleday) and the “landmark,” 542-page tome,
A History of African-American Artists from 1792 to the Present
in 1993
Thus they set forth the lives of more than fifty important artists.

Among the artists they investigated, one stood out, unique in American history and celebrated beyond the world of art: Edmonia Lewis.

Simply calling her exceptional is a gross understatement, like saying the Louvre collects wonderful paintings. She was a gatecrasher in the elite world of fine art and a self-made woman. She found fame and prospered at a time when wealthy white women had few legal rights; colored women, rich or poor, had less to none.

As a racial, social, and cultural outsider, she labored to harmonize with Victorian society as a model of decorum while balancing pride in her heritage and taking brave chances. She made herself the antithesis of the alarming stereotypes favored by the enemies of her people and a departure from the zealous torque of her heroes’ radical politics.

She expressed herself within the strict neoclassical idiom, bending its rules to her needs. She rarely complained of racial abuse in America, but it was not easy. In Europe, she could express her anger more openly by pushing back at bigots in an equality of insult. Harsh words. Crude gestures. Defiant images carved in white marble soon to be displayed in major American cities.

Her boldness made her a target for scorn, lies, and denial. It so tried her early supporters that some dismissed her. It so tested later admirers that scholar Kirsten Pai Buick published over 200 pages discussing “Lewis and the problem of art history’s black and Indian subject” in 2010. In the twentieth century, attempts to downgrade her and to invade her privacy prevailed. Contemporary praise was buried by historians. Disclosure of a college scandal, confusion about her sexuality, and mysteries over her last days too often overshadowed her skill as an artist and her triumphs as an iconoclast.

The lack of an accurate biography added to chronic errors and confusion about her. It also made her a blank slate for writers with hasty ideas and narrow agendas. Not always doing justice to their intentions, they ignored the bulk of her work and sometimes led the reader astray with unchecked brainstorms, biases, and errors. As a result, even her most ardent fans of recent generations were likely to echo old slanders, slants, and typos as facts, interesting and reliably true.

With laurels for her work from Italian judges and from critics English and American, she personified the dignity and talent of colored women in 19th century America. As Bearden and my father saw her, she is a seminal figure in our cultural record. All artists must struggle for recognition, but she had to do more. She beat the color barrier when it was stoutest in terms of brute force, raw energy, and shamelessness. In modern terms, she outflanked the myths of inferiority with great gifts, superior skills, a studied strategy, and a stainless character. As the ‘Jackie Robinson’ of American art, she continued to inspire long after she went into voluntary exile and disappeared.

Museums and collectors now search for her work, pushing values tantalizingly higher. The last decade far outpaced the prices of the 1990s. Newark Museum purchased two marble busts,
at $76,375 and $64,625, respectively, at a Christie’s auction in 2000. A Welsh family donated her bust of Longfellow to the British National Museums Liverpool in lieu of $117,000 in taxes. In April 2003, Sotheby’s London auctioned
an early version of her prize-winning
for £84,000 (about $130,000).
brought $52,875 at Cowan’s Auctions, Cincinnati, Ohio, in February 2009. In other auctions, the
Bride of Spring,
once thought to be lost, brought $138,000 at Cowan’s Auctions in 2007, a record at the time. A smaller and more sensuous “veiled”
took $27,255 at Skinner’s, Boston, in 2010. An early work, the three-figure
Indians in Battle
sold for $287,500 at Gabriel’s Auctions in Nov. 2010. Sotheby’s New York obtained $85,000, $87,750 and, in 2008, a record $301,000 for copies of the romantic
Old Arrow Maker.
The following year, a copy of its companion piece, the
Marriage of Hiawatha,
pushed the record to $314,500. Works that express the African-American struggle, such as the iconic
Forever Free
both in institutional hands for decades, can easily be described as priceless.

Many of her facts appear in the Bearden-Henderson
History of African-American Artists
– until now the most complete published authority on her life.
Its twenty-eight folio-size pages barely touch on her spirit, the dramas of tortured relationships, and the unique challenges she overcame as a pioneer. Because of her accomplishments and legacy, the authors felt her story deserved more study and a fuller telling for a wider audience. They started to draft sketches meant to sell the idea to a publisher who could reach the general reader. Then Bearden died in 1988.

Encouraged and occasionally aided by important scholars and others, my father pressed on. He spent substantial efforts to unearth little known details that helped him divine a more coherent reading of her life and art. He traced her steps, drafted more sketches, and collected material across North America and Europe. In 2003, he too passed away after a long illness, leaving a mountain of raw research and many ideas in various stages of draft or conversation.

Based on forty years studying the lives of African-American artists, he had fresh historical insights to Lewis’s life and work. Many sources he found challenged errors that hid truths both good and bad. He had exciting ideas about her complex personality and difficulties that nearly sank her career. He also recognized the socio-economic changes and the key role of a newly industrialized press that helped her to assault racism and sexism across the Western world.

Publication of Edmonia Lewis’s history was my father’s dying wish. As I had assisted him, meeting every Saturday for about fifteen years before his death, I shared his curiosity and his desire to memorialize her in print for the general reader. Unlike my father, who as a freelance never wrote without a publisher’s advance, I contributed to many learned journals without an invitation – my way of giving back to a community that had sustained my career in scholarly publishing. I decided to complete his work to satisfy my own curiosity. I hoped to help him tell Edmonia Lewis’s story – if I could – rather than see his devotion wasted. Relying on my memories of our conversations, going through his files and well beyond, I collated sources, marshaled facts, and fleshed out his arguments. Parts of his text and certainly his conception remain as I recall it. I enjoyed revolutionary advantages of full-text sources and databases online, enabling me to add many details previously beyond reach. Such advances led to discovering the surprising and long-sought details of the artist’s death.

In an effort to counter 150 years of errors, confusion, and meanness, I made a free web site filled with facts, links, quotations, and news of auctions and museum acquisitions: “Edmonia Lewis: First Internationally Acclaimed African-American Sculptor,” at I am pleased to report the number of visitors has steadily risen each year. I encourage readers of this biography to check the site for copies of documents and other useful information as well as to register to receive notice of “Edmonia Lewis News” via email.

Many biographies of nineteenth-century women celebrate their subjects’ gender by using their first names throughout. Our goal reaches beyond femininity, a narrative style intended to flow like adult fiction and to reach a wide readership. Close attention to chronology, maps, and the role of the nineteenth-century press improved our understanding of social dynamics central to Edmonia’s struggle. Comments that fill gaps in documentation with markers such as “imagine,” “perhaps,” and the absence of quotation marks are simply musings framed as storytelling rather than as monographic analysis. If we have met our goals, the reader will perceive Edmonia’s innate character and gifts in the scattered glass of surviving sources. To serve academic interests, we provided more than eight hundred notes, a bibliography, and a reference list of more than one hundred of the artist’s works found in our sources.

The first book to interpret Edmonia’s work from outside the mainstream,
Emancipation and the Freed in American Sculpture,
was published by its author, Freeman H. M. Murray, nearly one hundred years ago. My choice of self-publishing, in ebook format not dreamed of at the beginning of this project, echoes Murray’s approach as well as honoring our subject’s ideas of affordability, testing convention, and reaching out. I hope readers benefit from novel ebook features, such as hyperlinks, search, flexibility, and portability as well as its modest price.

The record shows Lewis as an artist driven by a spirit that was resolute, volatile, and uncanny. A difficult subject for any biographer, she appeared from and faded into the shadows of a society awed by her gifts and hobbled by cultish notions about blood, religion, class, sex, and art. Our Prologue sets out themes of ambition and resolve that struggle with social alienation and a need for privacy so great we should term it secrecy. Book One traces the bumpy road she traveled with strong-willed women of New England and her first great success as the New England anti-slavery commune and the Republican press trumpeted news of the first “colored sculptor.” Following her to Europe, Book Two reveals sudden fame, rude awakenings, harsh betrayals, miracles of fate, intense rivalries, unsung allies, a devotion to charity, confrontations polite and crude, and an outrageous Centennial climax. A two-part Epilogue discusses the image of the often-enigmatic artist and extends factual traces after 1878 and the hubbub of her American tours. Among the ways we found to illuminate her story and her art, we offer contrasts with some of her contemporaries – William Wetmore Story, John Rogers, J. Q. A. Ward, and numerous ardent feminists.

My father felt particular debts to Owen Laster, June Kelly, and Delbert Spurloc, to Michael Sayers for reading early drafts, to Joseph Henderson who found Lewis's medallion ad, to Elizabeth Henderson who made valuable corrections, and to Ted Henderson who helped with cover designs. I add my thanks for the counsel of the Bearden Foundation and the Bearden Estate and the invaluable aid and encouragement of F. Keith Bingham, Robert Cloud, Mitch Douglas, Eric Foner, George Gurney, Mary Sayre Haverstock, Amy Hill Hearth, Elizabeth Henderson, Joe Henderson, Ted Henderson, Theresa Leininger-Miller, Joe Lockard, Col. Merl M. Moore, Charmaine A. Nelson, Carroll Harris Simms, Eileen Tenney, Coni Porter Uzelac, Howard Zinn, and especially Harlene LeVine, who sustained me and my labors, and the spirit of my father, whose voice I will never forget.

BOOK: The Indomitable Spirit of Edmonia Lewis
7.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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