Chesterwood reveals 'Oasis of Beauty'
Photo Gallery | Chesterwood's new season of art
RELATED STORY | Getting to know Margaret French Cresson
STOCKBRIDGE -- "Gangs of her friends would come here. They would go canoeing on the housatonic and play charades, take over the studio," said Berkshire photographer Julie McCarthy, artist in residence at Chesterwood.
Young teenagers in elaborate costumes talked on the porch and walked through the fields in the days when Edith Wharton came to visit, and once the internationally acclaimed dancer Isadora Duncan.
Growing up here, a young woman could meet the some of the keenest women sculptors at the turn of the 20th century -- Evelyn Beatrice Longman, whose "Genius of Electricity" stood for years at the top of the AT&T building in New York; Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, known for a Cubist-style Columbus memorial in Huelva, Spain; Malvina Hoffman, who exhibited at the Chicago World's Fair.
Chesterwood is the summer home and studio of Daniel Chester French, the sculptor of the Lincoln Memorial, and his daughter, Margaret "Peggy" French Cresson, an award-winning sculptor in her own right.
"They doted on each other," McCarthy said.
"She was the light of French's life," said Andrea DePrococini, a guide at French's studio. "They were the dynamos. When you walk in and see that portrait of her, that direct gaze, that's so her."
An only child in and out of her father's studio all her life, Margaret modelled for him, and as a woman she worked in the studio, sculpting hundreds of portraits and figures.
"She found her own voice, her own interest in art, portraits and sculpture," said Donna Hassler, director at Chesterwood.
In the last years of her life, Margaret made the house fit for winter and lived here year-round. She grieved for her father, wrote a book about his life, and fought to make Chesterwood a museum. And so the rooms she lived in still welcome visitors.
McCarthy has created an exhibit of photographs in Margaret's spaces to bring her to life.
"I love that people get to go into those rooms," DePrococini said.
Turning on the light in McCarthy's exhibit, especially on a rainy day, she will see Margaret and Daniel Chester French outlined against the windows, as though they are standing out beyond them.
McCarthy took photographs at Steepletop Edna St. Vincent Millay's house in Austerlitz, N.Y., before it opened as a museum. She recorded black and white images of the possessions Millay had left there, still in place. Millay's rooms felt dark and moody, she said. In Margaret French Cresson she found the opposite -- Margaret demanded color.
McCarthy began last fall, taking photographs of Margaret's possessions: shoes, china figures, a clay rooster, a glass Dubonnet bottle, small objects Margaret kept about her.
Alongside these McCarthy created collages of black-and-white images of Margaret in her lifetime and color images of the rooms she left behind. Some show playful side to her, as she pokes gentle fun at herself, McCarthy said. Some have a poignant sting, as when an older Margaret looks down from a portrait on the wall at a younger Margaret in the center of the room.
McCarthy wanted to have a conversation with Margaret, she said, and to play with Margaret's idea of beauty.
Daniel Chester French called Chesterwood "an oasis of beauty," and McCarthy took his phrase for the title of her show. Margaret too, she said, found refuge in artwork and in this house and grounds French called "the best dry view he'd ever seen."
"She handled adversity by beauty," McCarthy said.
She faced her share well before her father died.
Margaret married a much older man, and her mother often seems a distant background figure in her life.
"She was of the era when you present a face to the world and you don't talk. She lost a child in childbirth, her husband died, her father died -- she had sadness in her life," McCarthy said.
But she did not reveal it easily.
McCarthy faced an unusual challenge in getting to know her. The Chapin Rare Book Library at Williams College has Margaret's papers, scrapbooks and other archives -- and Chapin has been closed to visitors this year while the library undergoes renovations.
Chapin and the new Sawyer Library will open later this month, according to David Pilachowski, director of libraries at Williams College. They will hold a soft opening once the books and staff are in place.
Without access to written records, McCarthy talked with people. Curatorial researcher Dana Pilson of Williamstown gave her histories and photographs.
Retired Stockbridge Police Chief Rick Wilcox remembers being called to Chesterwood on an alarm in 1973, McCarthy said, when he was new on the beat. Margaret had held a dinner party that night. In a room full of guests and light and company, she died peacefully at the table.
And she left Chesterwood to remember her by.
"I wish I had met her," Hassler said. "It would have been wonderful to shake her hand and to thank her."
If you go ...
What: Sculptor Daniel Chester French's house, studio and grounds; ‘An Oasis of Beauty' photographs; conteporary
sculpture by Albert Paley
Where: Chesterwood, 4 Williamsville Road, Stockbridge
When: Through Oct. 13
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily in July and August
Admission: $16.50 for adults, $8.25 for children 13 to 17, free for children 12 and under
The new Sawyer Library at Williams College and the Chapin Rare Book Library, which holds Margaret French Cresson's archives, will have a soft opening before the end of July, when they have moved the books and staff into new quarters.
Chapin will have rare books on view, including one volume of Audubon's monumental ‘Birds of America' with the colored and uncolored versions of plate 91: the Broad-Winged Hawk, to show the complex method of lithography, engraving, etching, and hand-coloring that went into each of Audubon's 435 plates.
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