Eva Sisson-Chittenden (1882-1927) appears to have suffered the fate of many contemporary women of means, being known in surviving public records either as the daughter of her father or as the wife of her husband, or both. I’ll summarize that for you below, but first let’s have a look at the sole record that celebrates her in her own right, though posthumously: her fantastic mausoleum in Binghamton, New York’s Spring Forest Cemetery.
The mausoleum is a competent classicizing box (figure 1) by Alfred Hopkins that frames the door by Oronzio Maldarelli (1892-1963), the Naples-born American sculptor (figure 2). Seeing Maldarelli’s door is worth the trip to Binghamton, and it is to Hopkins’ credit that he has been at pains not to distract us from it. Two overgrown rhododendrons are all that is visibly left of whatever landscape architecture originally surrounded the mausoleum. The weed at the lower right (figure 1) is invasive, I believe.
The door (figure 3) is a masterwork, carefully preserved. I brushed away some dust and cobwebs with a soft paintbrush, but the ruddy bronze, cast by the Roman Bronze Works in 1929, is almost entirely free of patina or other wear.
Except for a bare striker panel at the bottom, the door is a vertical rectangle framed successively by a rinceau with lion’s-head medallions in higher relief, and then a grape vine. Poppies and lotuses are prominent with their allusions to sleep and death. The central panel depicts two veiled female figures in symmetrical poses holding up a tondo with Eva Sisson-Chittenden’s portrait.
The figures stand against a background of a scale pattern, which I suspect is meant to be read as a door to the tomb: a frame within a frame, as they say. Eva’s portrait (figure 4) looks directly at the viewer and is surrounded by a wreath of bundled pine boughs, I think. The framing wreath breaks the frame of the inner frame circumscribing the two female figures, giving it additional prominence.
The bas relief portrait of Eva, with its blank eyes, is not equally attractive from all angles; figure 4, though a bit overexposed, is the best image I got, and shows a sympathetic face looking out with a circa 1910 hairstyle and a hint of a high, lacy collar. The hair is not perfectly in place: one of Eva’s signature ‘looks,’ I suppose. The classical profiles of the female figures are attractive but generic enough not to compete with Eva’s face.
Had this been a work of the aughts or even the teens, I’d have expected crisp modeling throughout. As it is, the artist has left abundant traces of the door’s modeling in clay.
Eva’s name sits in a rectangular space above the central relief panel (figure 5), and the epitaph and her dates reside in an equivalent panel below the central relief (figure 6).
HER COURAGEOUS SPIRIT
LIVES ON — 1882–1927
Anyone looking online, at any rate, for why she was singled out for her courageous spirit will be frustrated, I think. She was the daughter of William W. Sisson and the wife of Walter L. Chittenden. The former was the treasurer of the family business and heavily invested in fraternal organizations; the latter designates himself as a board broker on a U.S. Passport application. So she came from and married into business money: but we’d have already deduced that from the mausoleum.
However, nearly a hundred years after her death, we still see her pleasant and attractive face with its idiosyncratic hair on the door of her tomb and an attestation to her personal courage. In this respect, she is distinguished from almost all of the world’s dead.