Cleopatra was found in a dusty mall storage room outside Chicago in the late 1980s — wedged in among discarded Christmas decorations, covered in graffiti and house paint.
The 3,000-pound neoclassical marble sculpture depicting the death of the Egyptian queen had once been among the most prominent artworks entered into Philadelphia’s Centennial Exhibition in 1876. Its creator, Edmonia Lewis, was both praised and condemned for capturing the royal’s suicide in such heart-stopping detail.
But shortly after the world’s fair came to a close, both the Cleopatra sculpture and Lewis, who was part African American, part Native American, seemed to vanish from history.
After the fair, Lewis returned to her art studio in Rome, and largely disappeared from the US art scene. She had failed to sell the sculpture during her sojourn in America, and was reluctant to pay the enormous freight costs to send it back to Europe, according to reports.
For the next several decades, the piece, titled “The Death of Cleopatra,” made its way from a saloon to an Illinois racetrack where it served as the grave marker for a beloved race horse that shared its name. Now, the sculpture has a permanent home at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC.
And on Jan. 26, the United States Postal Service will honor Lewis, “the first African American and Native American sculptor to earn international recognition” in a special ceremony at the DC gallery with her own postage stamp. Lewis, who was nearly murdered by white vigilantes, kicked out of her Ohio art school and moved to Italy to escape racism in the US, will finally get her due as an important American artist.
“It’s fitting that she should be commemorated with a postage stamp because so much of what we know most vividly about her we know from letters that people were close to her wrote,” said Marilyn Richardson, a Massachusetts-based art consultant who spent decades tracking down and authenticating Lewis’ artworks, which have been scattered around the world.
“It’s impossible to overstate her significance and that’s becoming more and more clear as we see she really was something new under the sun,” Richardson continued. “We’ve never seen a woman of color who also identified as native both in her descent and in her work.”
After languishing in obscurity for decades, Lewis’ sculptures are fetching hundreds of thousands at auction. In addition to the Smithsonian, many of her pieces are now featured in the permanent collections of Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harvard University and Williams College, among others.
Lewis’ 1872 marble sculpture “The Old Arrow Maker,” which depicts a Native American man and his daughter in a scene from “The Song of Hiawatha” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, sold for more than $300,000 at a 2008 Sotheby’s auction. It’s now part of the collection of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas, a non-profit founded by Walmart billionaire Alice Walton.
Richardson, a retired MIT professor and former curator at the Museum of African American Art/Beacon Hill, Boston, told The Post she first saw the sculpture being sold by a Canadian art dealer on eBay for a few thousand dollars.
“As soon as I realized what it was, my husband and I got in the car and drove up to Quebec City in the middle of winter,” she said. “In my bad French, I tried to convince the guy that he had something far more valuable.” The Canadian dealer had acquired the sculpture “for peanuts” from an antique picker who found it at an estate sale, said Richardson, who authenticated the work before it was sold at Sotheby’s.
“What mattered to me was that the work was safe and sound, and that it would raise Lewis’ profile even higher,” she said.
Mary Edmonia Lewis was born on July 4, 1844, in Greenbush, now encompassing the city of Rensselaer and East Greenbush near Albany, NY, according to information she supplied on an application for a US passport. No records of her birth survive in the area, and Lewis herself might not have known her exact date of birth, according to Richardson.
Following the death of her father and mother, who was a member of the Ojibwa tribe and sold trinkets to tourists near Niagara Falls, Lewis was raised by extended family. A brother who had struck it rich during the Gold Rush in California offered to pay for her education at Oberlin College, the first university to admit women and African-Americans. But in the middle of her freshman year, she was accused of poisoning two white classmates. Before the charges were dropped for lack of evidence, she was practically lynched by a white mob, said Richardson.
“She could barely walk into the courtroom for her trial, even weeks after the attack,” Richardson told The Post, adding that Lewis was eventually expelled from the school for allegedly stealing art supplies — charges that Richardson and others believe were trumped up to get rid of her.
Lewis made her way to Boston where members of the Abolitionist movement had heard about her plight and found her work as an apprentice sculptor. When she completed a bust of Robert Shaw, a Harvard student who was killed while commanding a group of black soldiers in the Civil War, Lewis began to gain notice as a sculptor. She soon made enough from her work to be able to sail to Rome, where she became part of a group of successful expatriate women sculptors that novelist Henry James derisively called “the white marmorean flock.” During her years in Rome, which was considered the center of the art world in the 19th century before it moved to Paris, Lewis employed up to 12 assistants at her studio and was a savvy marketer of her own works, earning commissions from noblemen and clergy throughout Europe, said Richardson.
But after she died in London in 1907, Lewis was largely forgotten — a fate that befell many women artists of color, according to art historians.
“Women back then and people of color were basically forgotten if they had no way to have their legacy carried forward,” said Bobbie Reno, the town historian in East Greenbush, who has been working for several years to drum up recognition for Lewis.
“I had never heard of her, and then when I started to dig into her life everything about her just blew me away,” she said. “She lived in two cultures and didn’t let any obstacles stop her from doing what she did.”
Reno said she first contacted the US Post Office in 2020 to get Lewis her own stamp, and plans to hold a celebration in East Greenbush in early February at the local post office to commemorate the honor.
Reno, who said she is passionate about telling people about Lewis’ story, convinced local Democratic Congressman Paul Tonko to get behind the stamp. She also convinced the Rensselaer County Legislature to support her campaign with a resolution to the Post Office.
Lewis died in London of a kidney ailment in 1907 and is buried at St. Mary’s, a Catholic cemetery in the city. In her will, Lewis called herself a “spinster and sculptor” and asked for a black walnut coffin and for her obituary to be printed in the Tablet, a Roman Catholic publication.
For decades her grave was unmarked and overgrown with moss until Reno recently organized a GoFundMe campaign to restore the headstone. “I saw a picture of her grave,” Reno told The Post. “It was horrible so I spoke to professor Richardson and I contacted St. Mary’s cemetery in London.” Now, thanks to Reno’s efforts, there is a black marble headstone with gold lettering bearing Lewis’ name, profession and dates of birth and death.
Now Reno is quick to set the record straight wherever she sees a reference to Lewis. During a recent visit to Williams College Museum of Art in Massachusetts to view one of her sculptures she informed the curators that they had made an error about the year Lewis died. They corrected the date in front of the white marble bust of Hiawatha.
“And I stood there beaming,” Reno said.