In life and in death, the sculptor Edmonia Lewis was an enigmatic figure. The first black sculptress to gain fame on both sides of the Atlantic, she was part of a group of women sculptors that Henry James called “the white marmorean flock.” Born Mary Edmonia Lewis, she sculpted for British nobles and Boston Brahmins; Henry Wadsworth Longfellow posed for her; she was lauded in the press for her classical busts and depictions of American history.
But in 1865, after years of moving restlessly from state to state, Lewis crossed the sea, and ultimately vanished into obscurity. To this day, the website of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which includes her work in its collection, states: “After 1875, facts concerning the remainder of Lewis’s life as well as the date and place of death are obscure and conflicting.”
For more than a century, despite the best efforts of generations of scholars, this was true. Her final resting place remained a mystery. But a few years ago, some remarkable detective work changed that. Last year, thanks to a coalition of the curious and devoted, it became possible to visit the marked grave of Edmonia Lewis.
Little is available by way of documentation of Lewis’s early life, but the 19th-century press supplied a gripping narrative of her early years. Orphaned as a girl, she was “reared among the Indians” — her mother’s Ojibwe relations — and given the name Wildfire. She studied at Oberlin, but a claim that she had poisoned two students with Spanish Fly led her to cease her studies prematurely. Then she turned up in Boston, where the progressive whites who had been abolitionists before the Civil War arranged for her to be mentored by a local sculptor. Sales of a bust of Robert Gould Shaw, which she created in 1864, funded a one-way ticket to Europe, where she would spend the rest of her life. She eschewed the habit, common among her contemporaries, of using Italian artisans to do the actual marble-carving. Comparatively few of her works survive.
Among the most dedicated historians of Lewis is Marilyn Richardson, a former professor at MIT who has pursued the artist for decades. “Her experience was so wide and so varied, and she was such a mystery,” Richardson told me.
In 1988, Richardson discovered a sculpture by Lewis, the breathtaking “Death of Cleopatra,” the sculptor’s two-ton contribution to the 1876 Centennial in Pennsylvania, in a mall storage room in suburban Chicago. When Richardson first saw it, it was clumsily painted and “jammed in between Christmas trees.” Now it resides, magisterially, in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. When I first interviewed Richardson, in 2015, she told me that she had spent years seeking Lewis’s grave, in an effort to “lay her to rest” — a quest that became suddenly possible when historical records began to be uploaded to the Internet.
A 1901 census record revealed to Richardson that Edmonia Lewis had relocated from Rome to London, and subsequent research, with the aid of UK lawyer Scott Varland, uncovered Lewis’s will and burial records. Lewis died in Hammersmith Infirmary, in London, of Bright’s disease, a chronic and excruciating kidney ailment. From there, she was taken to the cemetery at Harrow Road.
In her will, Lewis identified herself as a “Spinster and Sculptor.” She asked for a dark walnut coffin, and that a notice of her death be printed in the Tablet, a British Roman Catholic publication. The resulting announcement — a curt sentence fragment — made no mention of her myriad accomplishments, and did not reach those who sought her across the sea. Until, over a century later, it found Richardson.
Richardson sees her research as part and parcel with the efforts of other black women scholars: after all, she noted, Alice Walker found Zora Neale Hurston’s grave, “out in the long grass.” “So I’ve become a cemetery sleuth,” she told me.
Until recently, the grave was unmarked: a slab of stone flush with the earth, overgrown with moss, one among many in the stone forest of St. Mary’s. Last year, however, the town where Lewis was born chose to reclaim its native daughter.
Bobbie Reno, 69, is East Greenbush’s town historian, and has a passion for doing justice to the dead. After a career working for New York state, she was drawn to one particular local historical oddity: an execution during the War of 1812 at the Greenbush Cantonment, a military training facility of which only one barracks remains. There, a soldier named Samuel Helms was shot in the heart.
“I found out that he was executed by an illegal court-martial and wrongfully charged with desertion,” Reno told me recently. She said she’s spent seven or eight years tracing his story and convincing the US Army to expunge the desertion charge from his record.
Her assiduousness led to an appointment as the town historian, which is how she first heard about Edmonia Lewis. She was so taken by the story that she decided to write and illustrate a book about Lewis — and discovered the stark fact of her unmarked grave.
Since then, Reno has taken up the cause — and, with the help of some crowdfunding, completed the task that Richardson began. With the permission of St. Mary’s Cemetery’s stewards, Reno set up a GoFundMe to hire a UK firm and create the grave marker.
Today, grave C350 is newly distinguished. Now, on black marble, a woman’s name is picked out in gold letters: “Edmonia Lewis, Sculptor, 1844-1907.”
The monument is as simple as its creation was complex: a smooth black square with a slant, the letters stocky and plain. (Reno omitted “spinster” from the identification of Lewis on the gravestone. “It just seemed inappropriate,” she said.) But more than a dozen people gave money towards it; two scholars devoted to one woman’s memory connected over it; and now, the community of Edmonia Lewis’s birth has paid for her commemoration in death.
Neither Reno nor Richardson has yet made it out to London to see the grave. But Richardson — who is currently pursuing a bust of Jesus in a Scottish castle, sculpted by Lewis for the Marquess of Bute — plans to go this summer and pay her respects. “She really was a first, a one of a kind for quite a while,” Richardson told me.
“It seems to me that having been able to lay her to rest was a big step,” she added. “And now, to have a marker that visitors can come and see and go to — in a sense, pay homage to her — is a way of strengthening her presence in the cultural canon.”
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