Thursday September 16, 2010

STOCKBRIDGE -- She wears a lace kerchief gathered to one side of her forehead, and she looks to the left, smiling with serene mischief -- a woman full of thoughts and enjoying them.

On her bronze patina, a rub of gold on shawl and collar bone suggests an old statue, once painted and now worn to essentials. A plaque at the level of her top ribs reads "Francesca." She might be a character out of Dante, the Francesca who fell in love with Paolo over a book they read together.

But she is not old, less than 100 years. Margaret French Cresson shaped her out of clay in the studio at Chesterwood.

Robert Volz traced the curve of the scarf in a photograph in one of Cresson's own photo albums and agreed that Cresson might have dreamed her out of Dante.

"Draped cloth is one of the hardest things to make believable," he said.

Volz, head librarian at the Chapin Rare Book Library at Williams College, discovered Cresson this summer when Chesterwood offered its archives for the Chapin collection. When the library evaluated the archives, he had the job of looking through her 172 boxes of papers, photographs, manuscripts, letters, albums and recordings.

"Peggy" French, only daughter of Daniel Chester and Mary "Mamie" French, made a career out of her own sculpture, selling pieces for as much as $5,000 at the turn of the 20th century.

"She is an important sculptor," he said; "she will hold her own against anyone, male or female."

Women received national attention as sculptors earlier than they did in some other artistic fields, he added, including architecture; many went on Italian tours to Florence and Rome.

Women then sculpted not only mythological subjects but political -- Sarah Fisher Ames' bust of Lincoln at the Williams College Museum of Art -- and social -- Abastenia St. Leger Eberle's "the white slave," a man holding a naked girl by the neck with an arm out to solicit bids, a protest against child prostitution.

Cresson studied with Eberle and with George Demetrios at the New York School of Applied Design. Some of her carved faces look smoothly and solemnly ahead, like studio portraits, but many reveal more: the taut energy of Commander (later Admiral) Byrd, who made the first flight over the Antarctic, or the gravity of her father's face.

"She had artistic ability and an insight into people," said Donna Hassler, director of Chesterwood. She felt these were integral to a sculptor: "trying to find characteristics of people to bring out in a portrait; being able to capture a likeness."

"Her father worked with classical sensibilities; she has a modern element -- true to life," said Wayne Hammond, assistant Chapin librarian.

Cresson did not do monumental works, on the scale of her father's 150-foot colossus over the lagoon at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, Volz said; she specialized in portraits, memorials and relief sculpture.

"Often in former days, families of some substance had portraits painted of children," Volz explained. "She had commissions to sculpt living children, like baby pictures today. She was a master when it came to doing young children."

Her mother wrote that at 3 years old her daughter "used to like to go down and watch her father at work, and amuse herself with the clay and other enticing things which she found lying about."

She continued to work in the studio at Chesterwood all her life, Hassler said, and opened it to the public even while Chesterwood was still a private house. She sculpted in clay. Hassler explained that few sculptors cast their own bronze (as Andrew DeVries does today in Lenox) or carve their own marble.

Artisans would make plaster casts and models of the clay originals. For a marble sculpture, they would work from the plaster bust, sometimes making notes on it in pencil, and for a bronze, they would make a molds porcelaine from the plaster busts.

They helped Cresson in her prolific output. Many have names and families -- but who, among all of her commissioned portraits, is the intent man with the bandana tied round his head, called only "an Italian"?

Volz emphasized that Cresson left many questions when she died in 1973, and her archives offer many avenues of research, along with insight into the art world especially in the 1920s and 1930s.

The only child who played in her father's workroom, the artist who studied in the city, the lady who supported and corresponded with artists, the business woman who preserved Chesterwood for the national trust seems -- as she wrote of Mary Hopkins, founder of the Laurel Hill Association, in a centennial history -- to have "had a feeling that she could appeal to people's pride, could cajole them, laugh at them and sass them; she could infect them with her eagerness."