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.
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.
Reprinted with permission of Marilyn Richardson.