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A Portrait Restored

When the portrait of Mary Richardson was at last hung in Ballou Hall in December, art history professor Madeline Caviness could finally say: "She is no longer silent." For Caviness, Richardson's life - and the discovery and restoration of her portrait - is a narrative that has long deserved telling.

The story begins in 1836 when Mary Cowen was born in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the daughter of a shipmaster. Married at age 19 to William Augustus Richardson, she pursued learning through the Universalist church and travel abroad. After her husband's death in 1897, she took an active part in the management of her husband's business, an arms manufacturing company in Worcester, Massachusetts, and joined the board of directors.

So empowered, Richardson, by then in her early 60s, began to make her mark in philanthropy. She almost single-handedly brought her Unitarian Church out of debt. She gave constant attention to women's education and charity groups, in addition to institutions such as Tufts College and St. Lawrence University. Throughout, Richardson wished for little recognition. She once donated $1,000 to a Boston home for girls and told a reporter: "Make it as brief as possible if you say anything about me." When she died in 1910 at age 73, representatives from Tufts and St. Lawrence, as well as many workers from her factories, attended the funeral to honor the generous charity of a modest woman.

In Tufts, Richardson undoubtedly saw an opportunity to strengthen a worthy institution with great financial needs. As an active Unitarian, she surely was sympathetic to the principles upon which Tufts was founded, the optimistic, liberal ethic of the Universalist Church. Her bequest of $20,000 in 1904, with a second $20,000 subsequently added, helped endow a much needed professorship at the divinity school, later the Crane Theological School. She also funded a student scholarship and a valuable collection of Sir Walter Scott books.

Richardson may also have felt a kinship with young women eager for learning. Richardson showed her support helping, for instance, to fund female exchange students from Japan. When Tufts was hard pressed for women's accommodations, Richardson was ready. In October 1910, after extensive renovations and expansion, 28 Professors Row, a former men's boardinghouse built in 1857, opened its doors to 18 Jackson women and took the name Richardson House.

Richardson's story then takes a different turn. For years her portrait hung in Eaton Memorial Library. But in time it was relegated to storage, its label lost. In 1988, the painting was to be sold at auction as a "Portrait of an Unidentified Woman." In the meantime, Caviness had been named Mary Richardson Professor and Dean Maryella Feinleib began to research a woman known by name only. At the inaugural lecture of Caviness's professorship, Feinleib showed a slide of a rare photo of Richardson. Suddenly Caviness realized the identity of the woman in the painting.

The painting was promptly recovered from the auction house, but, to her great surprise, Tufts handed it over to Caviness. Upon closer scrutiny, Caviness found that what looked like "five o'clock shadow" on Richardson's face was the vestiges of a prankish painted-on moustache. She had the painting cleaned and gave it back to Tufts on condition that it be permanently hung on campus.

The restoration and return of Mary Richardson, however, is not the final chapter. Caviness, an expert in the stained-glass traditions of Europe, found inspiration in Richardson's portrait while it was in her care. With the portrait hanging over her desk, she worked on a series of case studies of women and art that include a comparison of Richardson's life with that of Agnes of Braine, a 12th-century woman who supported the construction of a French Gothic church and fell into obscurity after her death. "I wrote under her gaze about the "silencing of women,' " said Caviness. "It was easy to find similar threads between these two very different women."

Richardson's portrait, hanging in Ballou, Tufts' oldest building and the heart of its administration (where the only other female portrait is that of Ballou's wife, Hannah), is a reminder of women's oft-invisible importance in history and how their lives must continually be revealed. "I miss her," said Caviness. "But it's important, especially for women, to know her story. I'm always happy to tell it, especially to the Richardson House students."

This article was adapted from an essay by Brooke Sikora, J99, who now works for the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee. A double major in art history and international relations, she lived in Richardson House, still a women's dormitory.

   

 

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