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Miss Mercer, I Presume

I remember it was a Sunday in 1980, late in the day and hot. The magazine Antiques had done a feature on Demopolis, Alabama, a town the size of Selma located west on Alabama 80. The article showed an interior view of the house in question, where a painting of the Tombigbee River by Wilhelm Frye hung over a sideboard. Magazine in hand, I went looking for the house. The sign at the door announced that the historic home was closed on Sunday, but there was a number to call.

The volunteer met me and gave me all the time I needed, including my stopping to admire or just make conversation about the watercolors hanging inside the front door, each with a small price on it. She relayed that the artist was Miss Geneva Mercer and that she lived just a few blocks away. I made my way over and knocked, met by a hospitality as generous as the accommodating docent’s.

Miss Mercer and I both wanted to sell. In this instance I had made my first trip to Demopolis in search of a painting—the Frye, which I was certain I could sell—if only it could be bought. Miss Mercer was in a mood to sell, too. A genteel lady, she either needed the money or thought she did, parading everything in that modest home before me. The dining room table was her easel and her mind’s trails led her to other rooms where she always seemed to find something else to offer.

There were more watercolors, but they just didn’t appeal to me. And then there was a single piece of sculpture—the centerpiece on that table. That bronze figure of a golfer was surely more important than I understood it to be that hot afternoon, having seen it since at one of the auctions in New Orleans. It must have been created when the artist was much younger, an enthusiastic response to the sport so madly embraced in Geneva Mercer’s South, in that time when Bobby Jones played the Augusta National. She was very proud of that statue and had seemingly held on to it until the last.

At the time of our meeting, I knew very little about Miss Mercer; I have since learned much more.

Born and raised in Jefferson, Alabama, Mercer began sculpting at an early age. After completing high school in 1904, she entered Alabama Normal College (now Livingston University), earning a teaching certificate while working at home on her sculpture. In 1907, her work was brought to the attention of the Italian sculptor Giuseppe Moretti (1859-1935), then living near Talladega, Alabama. Moretti offered to take Miss Mercer on as a student and assistant. From 1907 to 1909—first in Alabama and then in Florence, Italy—she copied from antique and Renaissance models, mastering technique and subject. By the conclusion of this tutorial, she had become a respectable apprentice. Over the next twenty-five years, Mercer assisted Moretti on projects in the United States, Italy, and Cuba. In addition to these collaborations, she produced fountain figures, portraits, and reliefs. Her wonderful Flimp (flower imps) Fountain is in the Montgomery Museum of Fine Art today.

The first and only work by Geneva Mercer that I have owned was a marble sculpture I purchased from noted dealer Janice Connor in 1994, ten years after the artist’s passing. Female Torso was modeled in 1916 and carved in 1926 in Italy. An appealing rendition of a female in contrapposto, the torso terminates above the knees and is turned to the right—the right shoulder bent, the left shoulder raised. Mercer evidently created the work independently of any commission, choosing this most traditional of subjects as an exercise in treating the human body. The smoothly finished surface, carved in milky white Carrara marble, has the same grace and beauty as the figure itself. It is Mercer’s only known marble nude.

In the mid-1920s, Mercer and the Morettis returned to Italy, where the family purchased a villa in San Remo overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. She worked on her own projects and assisted Moretti until his death in 1935. With war looming, she and Mrs. Moretti returned to the United States in 1939, settling in Boston. She produced a few bronze portraits and reliefs, taught clay modeling, and painted portraits and still lifes, a skill she had developed earlier, but had not pursued. At some point, perhaps drawn by the deep vein of Carrerra-like marble that runs through much of Sylacauga, Mercer resettled in Alabama.

On the day of our meeting, Miss Mercer was welcoming but intent, attired more in housecoat than dress, the fabric still flowing as she moved slowly about. I remember the color and that there was almost no pattern to it, allowing her to recede into the dark browns and grays of the carpets and upholstered furnishings. At the end of our visit, I could only thank her for the time she shared, both of us disappointed that I left without a treasure—and without leaving a check.

Geneva Mercer (1889-1984)
Female Torso (1916)
23 1/2 x 9 x 6 1/2 inches
Owner: Private Collection, Columbia, Tennessee
1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
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