730: The Indomitable Spirit of Edmonia Lewis by Henderson & Henderson

by Gerard


730.92: Henderson, Harry & Albert Henderson. The Indomitable Spirit of Edmonia Lewis: A Narrative Biography. Milford, CT: Esquiline Hill Press, 2012. Approx. 550 pp. ISBN 978-1-58863-451-1.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 700: Fine Arts
  • 730: Plastic arts and sculpture
  • +92: Biography

Mary Edmonida Lewis was born July 4, 1844 (or so she says) in Greenbush, New York (now Rensselaer). She grew up with many of the adversities befitting her station in life, but eventually went to college and became a world renowned sculptor. Her works were displayed at the 1876 Centennial Exposition and she was even commissioned to do a bust of President Ulysses S. Grant. All of this would have remarkable had she been solely a woman in 19th century America. But she had one other major hurdle to overcome which speaks to both her perseverence and her skill—she was both Native American and African-American. Written by the father-son team of Harry and Albert Henderson, The Indomitable Spirit of Edmonia Lewis is the culmination of decades of research on this long-forgotten artist.

While the details of Lewis’s life are scant, her story is still worth telling. She attended one of the first racially and gender integrated colleges in the US (Oberlin). While there, though, she was subjected to a brutal beating after she weas suspected of poisoning two other students. In spite of this, she became a sculptor’s apprentice and sold her first piece for $8 (a decent windfall in those days). From there, went to study in Rome and was brought up in the Neoclassical tradition. In the decade following the Exposition, however, the world’s interest in Neoclassic design waned and she faded into obscurity, dying in London in 1907.

This book is based primarily on Harry Henderson’s research, conducted since the 1970s. His son Albert finished the text after his Harry’s death in 2003. This one is a purely electronic text, with hyperlinked footnotes and a vast index of works. The narrative quality, I feel, immerses the reader in the story more than a regular scholarly biography would. The Hendersons integrate information from news stories and letters to make it more like a novel than a history text. Lewis’s story is all at once interesting and sad. Her life, while forgotten for a while is now making a come back among art historians and this immense work helps to secure her artistic legacy. A daunting but illuminating read.