Seeing Chesterwood 'through Margaret's eyes'

Exhibit honors Margaret French Cresson

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STOCKBRIDGE — If you've ever enjoyed a visit to Chesterwood, sculptor Daniel Chester French's summer studio and estate, you can thank his daughter for that.

A half-century ago, Margaret French Cresson, artist and daughter of the Lincoln Memorial statue sculptor, donated Chesterwood to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

"She wanted to preserve the legacy of her father as an important sculptor in the late 19th and early 20th century," Chesterwood Executive Director Donna Hassler said. "If it wasn't for her forethought, this property would probably be in private hands."

Cresson initially donated her father's studio, gallery and 79 acres of the estate in 1968. A year later, it was formally dedicated as a property of the National Trust. The donation of the family residence followed in 1973.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Chesterwood's public opening, an exhibition about Cresson is on display through April 30 at Stockbridge Library Museum & Archives. "Margaret French Cresson: Her Artistic Life and Legacy in Preserving Chesterwood" surveys her life at the historic estate from a young girl to her mature years through art, images and artifacts.

Co-curated by a Chesterwood team of Hassler, curatorial researcher Dana Pilson and Historic Artists' Homes and Studios program manager Valerie Balint, the exhibit kicks off the 50th anniversary celebration.

"Because Chesterwood is not open during the winter months, we decided to collaborate with the Stockbridge Library," Hassler said.

Born in 1889, Cresson resided with her family at Chesterwood from May to late fall each year from 1897. An only child, she would play with clay in her father's studio. He became her first sculpting teacher.

"She traveled all over with [French] and was exposed at an early age to different cultures," Hassler said. "That influenced her sensibilities as an artist."

In 1921, she married writer, diplomat and architect William Penn Cresson in Italy; 20 years her senior, he died in 1932.

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Cresson kept a diary and saved everything from performance and exhibition tickets to newspaper articles in scrapbooks. Like her mother, Mary, she was an avid reader and prolific writer. She penned letters, articles and, in 1947, a noted biography of her father, "Journey Into Fame."

After her parents died, she lived at Chesterwood full-time from the 1950s until her own death.

"She continued to work as a sculptor," Hassler said, "and was very involved in the community at large."

The exhibition looks at Cresson's childhood, family, work, social life and efforts to preserve Chesterwood. She augmented the estate with public monument studies, paintings, drawings and papers purchased from institutions and collectors.

These efforts also helped preserve her own legacy, according to Hassler.

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At the library, photographs are hung near the entrance, with artwork and memorabilia — artist's smock, modeling tools, pearl necklace — displayed in the downstairs gallery, alongside a binder of additional images.

Photographs show her modeling for French, which she did from a young age. She also posed for visiting artists, and many of these paintings are on view at Chesterwood. She loved dressing up, Pilson noted.

"We have wonderful images of her working alongside her father in the studio," Hassler said. "She excelled in portrait busts, as well as relief sculpture of primarily children."

Stockbridge residents featured prominently in Cresson's work. She sculpted Dr. George Merrill three times at different ages — his 1938 bronze portrait at age 27 is displayed — and was godmother to his daughter, artist Susan Merrill.

While Cresson's work was shown in New York City and at Chesterwood during her lifetime, this is her first posthumous exhibition.

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"It seems fitting as part of this 50th anniversary that we acknowledge and honor her for preserving Chesterwood," Hassler said, "and also recognize her own talents."

Materials are drawn from French family archives at Williams College's Chapin Library, Chesterwood and Stockbridge Library.

Pilson spent months mining the Chapin collection of 270 boxes, 170 boxes of it devoted to Cresson. The Library of Congress houses an additional 23,000 items of mostly correspondence.

The scrapbooks proved particularly exciting, Pilson noted. "Each page you turn is like being in a time machine."

Cresson's family readily engaged with the local community. Her father hung notices in the post office inviting townspeople to view new work; her mother hosted teas for "Cottagers" like the Choates and Whartons.

"Margaret was at the center of the Stockbridge social scene," Pilson said, noting she had her hand in everything from town and church matters to the arts.

Her horse even appeared onstage at the Berkshire Playhouse, which her father co-founded; and she sculpted a portrait of renowned character actor Richard Hale.

"She was a highly charismatic individual," Balint said. "It was important to bring her forward not as a dilettante sculptor, but as someone legitimate in her own agency as an artist."

Hassler hopes the exhibit will introduce people to Cresson and her Chesterwood life.

"When we open for the season," she said, "people can see Chesterwood in a new way, through Margaret's eyes."


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