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
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.