June 12, 2019

Two 19th-Century Artists’ Homes Shed Light on the Women Who Shaped Them

Chesterwood and Thomas Cole National Historic Site are both residences-turned-museums that interpret the works and lives of two established artists from the 19th century. Both are in the Hudson River Valley (Stockbridge, Massachusetts and Catskill, New York, respectively). And both have recently delved into the history of the artists’ daughters—both of whom made an indelible mark on these places.

At Chesterwood, a National Trust Historic Site, an exhibit on view through May 30, 2019, examined the life of Margaret French Cresson (an artist and curator who preserved her father’s artistic legacy). Meanwhile, Thomas Cole National Historic Site’s latest exhibit, on display through July 31, dives into Emily Cole’s work in painted porcelain and watercolor botanicals.

Margaret French Cresson’s Impact on Chesterwood

Though Margaret French Cresson was born in Concord, Massachusetts, and grew up in New York City, she spent most of her summers at Chesterwood after her father, Daniel Chester French, purchased the property in 1897. She posed for her father’s paintings and sculptures in his now-famous studio and gardens. In addition to his tutelage, she studied sculpture under Abastenia St. Leger Eberle and George Demetrios, and she developed her talents for drawing and design at the New York School of Applied Design for Women.

Black and white photo from 1915 showing Margaret French Cresson and Daniel Chester French in the Chesterwood studio, sculpting.

photo by: Chapin Library, Williams College, Gift of the National Trust for Historic Preservation/Chesterwood, a National Trust Historic Site, Stockbridge, Massachusetts

Cresson and French work on their sculptures together at Chesterwood's studio.

Black and white photo of Margaret French Cresson sitting in front of a Lincoln statue in Chesterwood's studio, possibly from the 1950s.

photo by: Chapin Library, Williams College, Gift of the National Trust for Historic Preservation/Chesterwood, a National Trust Historic Site, Stockbridge, Massachusetts

Margaret French Cresson sits in the studio in a photo possibly dating back to the 1950s.

Cresson created many sculptures, as well as bas-reliefs and portraits of children, portrait heads, and memorial plaques throughout her lifetime. Many of her works were taken out of storage for Chesterwood’s recent exhibit.

According to Dana Pilson, the curatorial researcher for the exhibit, “[Cresson] was especially gifted in the art of portraiture, and her bas-reliefs of young children are full of personality and life. The portraits of children are especially touching, knowing that [Cresson] lost a baby at birth, and she and her husband did not have any other children.”

Equally as significant as her individual works was Cresson’s dedication to preserving Chesterwood as a reflection of Daniel Chester French’s prolific work. She came into ownership of Chesterwood after the deaths of her father (1931) and her mother (1939). During the 1930s and ‘40s, Cresson returned to the estate each summer to sculpt and write as she did in her childhood, but she moved to Chesterwood full-time in the 1950s.

It was around this time that Cresson took a vested interest in preserving her father’s legacy. She created a museum dedicated to his work in the studio, opening its doors to the public in 1955. She amassed a substantial collection of French’s preparatory studies, plaster casts, and finished works over the course of several years. French scholar Michael Richman wrote in his book, Daniel Chester French: An American Sculptor, “…Cresson preserved her father’s sculpture, rescuing, whenever possible, original plasters from museums all too willing to deaccession them.”

Cresson ceded Chesterwood to the National Trust in 1969, and it became a Historic Site.

But she continued to live on the property, offering her wealth of knowledge to staff members for many years. Now, the recent exhibit detailing her invaluable contributions to Chesterwood and her father’s work, as well as her own pieces of art, enriches the story the Historic Site tells today.

Emily Cole at Cedar Grove: Then and Now

The exhibit at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site—formerly known as Cedar Grove—that features Emily Cole’s work is the artist’s first solo exhibit, including 12 original sets of her painted porcelain and 13 works on paper. In addition to this exhibit, over 100 of Cole’s watercolors and works of painted porcelain reside at the site in its main collection.

Like her four siblings, Emily Cole grew up in Cedar Grove; she also spent much of her life working there as an artist. She was the only one of Thomas Cole’s children to take an interest in painting, though she did not work specifically in the Hudson River School of painting that her father popularized in his lifetime. Instead, Cole focused on botanical watercolors of local flora.

In fact, according to Kate Menconeri, site director and director of collections, “a lot of the specimens she depicted on paper are blooming in the garden [at Cedar Grove] right now. She left a document of the flowers that are still here.”

Similar to Cresson, Cole studied at a New York City art school, though historians do not know which school she attended. She was also the charter member of the New York Society of Ceramic Arts, founding the organization in 1892 to encourage the appreciation of ceramics. And though the same resources and opportunities afforded to male artists of the time were not available to her and other women, Cole managed to earn a living selling her work.

At the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, efforts to tell the stories of women living and working at the home began around 2010 with an exhibition called “Remember the Ladies,” about the women of the Hudson River School.

But the site expanded its interpretation with its “The Art of Emily Cole” exhibit and a tour detailing the lives of Maria Bartow Cole, Thomas Cole’s wife and the owner of Cedar Grove; Sarah Cole, Thomas’ sister; Emily Cole; and Cole family descendants Florence Cole Vincent and Edith Cole Silberstein, who (like Cresson) stewarded the home and worked to preserve it. Both the tour and the exhibit are available through July 2019.

These two sites show how important it is not just to examine someone’s life through their own experiences, but through the lens of the people around them. Not only do we learn more about Daniel Chester French and Thomas Cole when we look closely at Margaret French Cresson and Emily Cole, we also get a deeper understanding of the places these women shaped and the greater impact they made on the world.

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Carson Bear

Carson Bear was an Editorial Coordinator at the National Trust. She’s passionate about combining popular culture with historic places, and loves her 200-year-old childhood farmhouse in Pennsylvania.

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