March 14, 2019

Statues Without Limitations: Harold Holzer Examines the Unsung Life of Sculptor Daniel Chester French

Sculptor Daniel Chester French.

photo by: Peter S. Juley & Son; Chesterwood Archives, Chapin Library

Daniel Chester French in his studio at Chesterwood, seated in front of the clay relief for the Longfellow Memorial, 1913.

In the realm of public monuments in the United States, few have reached the heights of renown achieved by the Lincoln Memorial. Dedicated on May 30, 1922, its centerpiece is a 175-ton statue of the country’s 16th President carved out of Georgia white marble. But only a rare individual could tell you the name of the artist behind this national icon, much less his story of “creative expression in perennial conflict with the demands of status, wealth, and propriety.”

Born in 1850, Daniel Chester French was known for his reticent demeanor that belied the wide-reaching impact of his art. Scores of French's sculptures adorn public spaces around the country, including The Minute Man in his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, Alma Mater at Columbia University, and a bronze Abraham Lincoln statue in Lincoln, Nebraska, that preceded its famed Washington, D.C., counterpart.

With his newly published biography Monument Man: The Life & Art of Daniel Chester French, acclaimed author and Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer paints a painstaking portrait of a sculptor whose work has come to far overshadow his name.

From French’s New England upbringing to his death at his beloved Chesterwood estate and studio, one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Historic Sites and a member of the Historic Artists' Homes and Studios program, Holzer leaves no stone unturned. We spoke with him about the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial, French’s transformation of Chesterwood, and much more.

(This interview is edited for length and clarity.)

Monument Man begins with a shocking depiction of the discrimination that African Americans endured at the Lincoln Memorial dedication. Why did you choose to start a biography of Daniel Chester French this way?

I found genuine historical irony in the fact that at the dedication of the grandest monument to Abraham Lincoln, the man who had written the Emancipation Proclamation, such rampant discrimination was evident in things like seating and the censorship of the only African American speaker on the program that day [Dr. Robert Russa Moton of the Tuskegee Industrial School]. And I don’t think it’s an irony that should be ignored.

It’s important to remind people that statue dedications were a huge deal in the early part of the 20th century, and that this was a flawed and disturbing ceremony that should never have taken place the way it did. Now, because of subsequent appearances there by Marian Anderson and Martin Luther King Jr., the memorial has become a space of aspiration dedicated more appropriately to achieving Lincoln’s unfinished work on Civil Rights. That’s exactly what Moton hoped to talk about, had his remarks had not been cut by the powers that be.

How would French have felt about the symbolic evolution of the Lincoln Memorial over the years?

I searched a long time, and ultimately in vain, for any statements in which he expressed himself on civil rights. But I think he wanted the memorial to be a timeless work that would always engage people, so he would, I hope, have been thrilled to know that it got a new life in the World War II era and has served as a backdrop for enlightened aspiration ever since. It’s very rare that any statue achieves that kind of iconic status.

What kind of person was French? What were the challenges of writing his biography?

French was a man of very few words and did not wear his emotions on his sleeve. He was a typical turn-of-the-century, tight-lipped Yankee character, so he’s a tough nut to crack as a subject for a biography. But he loved work. Anything you wanted to know about him was in the sculpture. And he was very good at keeping copies of everything he wrote along with incoming correspondence.

The challenge to a writer is finding drama—or finding a way to work around the absence of drama. “Unfortunately,” French didn’t live a life of suffering, crises, psychological trauma, or overcoming critical resistance. He became successful pretty fast. That’s one of the reasons that I started with the dedication.
French at work on a sculpture.

photo by: Chesterwood Archives, Chapin Library

French at work on the clay model of Ambrose Swasey in his studio at Chesterwood, 1922.

French at work on a sculpture.

photo by: Chesterwood Archives, Chapin Library

French at work on the full-scale model of the Spirit of Life on the railroad track at Chesterwood.

Given how prolific he was and the significance of his works, is it odd that French is relatively little-known? How did that happen?

American taste for classical sculpture and representational sculpture changed over the years. More Modernistic works came into vogue, and for a time, the whole idea of public statuary retreated to the deep recesses of our thought. Not until the Confederate memorial controversy have we started thinking again about public statuary and how emotionally impactful public monuments can be. I think we’ve seen a determination nationally to reexamine ill-conceived works—as artistically beautiful as some in the old Confederacy may be—but also pay attention to new works, because they are again proliferating. Now that we’re back in a renaissance of either appreciation or anger towards monumental sculptures, this is French’s time to come back into [the spotlight].

We take the Lincoln Memorial for granted. It’s used by every incoming president as a backdrop before his inauguration. It’s used by protesters. It’s been the scene of great moments in the modern civil rights struggle. French deserves credit for creating that scene that is so important to establish national goals. But I think it was the advent of Modernism, in a way, that curtailed the reputations of all the representational sculptors.

As a prominent Abraham Lincoln scholar, were you tempted to draw any parallels between him and French?

No [laughs]. But my personal touch was that I looked for connections to Lincoln of which French might not have been aware when he first had the experiences—such as serving time in the Florence studio of Thomas Ball just as Ball was finishing a Lincoln monument of his own. I liked to think, with no evidence, that when he was in his 70s he looked back and appreciated these connections, and realized that [Lincoln as a subject] had been a thread in his own life.

That certainly comes through in the chapter about the Lincoln Memorial’s origins. It reads like the culmination of all his work, in many ways.

Oh, he wanted it. And when the supervising commission briefly considered doing a copy of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Lincoln statue in Chicago, he became very concerned and got his friend Henry Bacon, who was the architect of the memorial, to put his foot down. He wanted that gig for sure.

photo by: Michael Lavin Flower

The exterior of French's studio at Chesterwood.

Where was French at in his career at the time he purchased Chesterwood?

He was not yet 50 years old, but he was certainly raking in good commissions. In the 1890s he became friendly with Saint-Gaudens, who was a little bit older and much more acclaimed. In fact, he was sort of a thorn in French’s side, like the friend that’s always doing a little better than you.

But he did invite French to spend a summer in Cornish, New Hampshire, where Saint-Gaudens had built a beautiful summer estate in a community that was sort of a mutually supportive artists’ colony. I think from the time French spent that summer there, he wanted that kind of retreat for himself. This was the way great artists lived and entertained patrons and critics.

French thought his own retreat should be between Boston and New York City—he did work for both cities in public spaces. He and his wife finally came to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where they found a property on the market. It was a run-down, one-story farmhouse with a barn next to it. French took one look at the mountain that faces the house from the south and said, “This is it.”

What did French see in this property?

French had a really great eye. And as any great sculptor knows, a monument sits on a pedestal. He saw this hilltop, not caring what was on it at the time, and saw the pedestal as his monument, his home. He saw beyond what it was, and he fashioned it into his own paradise. It meant everything to him.

Over the next four or five years, with Henry Bacon as the architect, French and his wife, Mary, transformed it into a beautiful summer house, and a functional, beautiful studio.

Interior of Chesterwood Studio

photo by: Don Freeman

French's studio is frequently filled with soft, natural light filtered through a skylight.

Gardens at Chesterwood

photo by: Michael Lavin Flower

French took great pride in his gardens, planting new trees, hedges, and flowers.

It does seem like the property was something of an affirmation of the status he had achieved.

That’s a good way of putting it. But I think he saw everything about it—not just affirmation of his status, but also a perfect place to work. It had great lighting, and his sculpting base was on a concealed railroad track.

Whenever he wanted, he could have his assistant open these big doors and roll the sculpture out into the open air so he could see it in the natural light. Then he could climb down the hillside and look at it as it would look on a pedestal, and make the adjustments he thought were necessary.

This was a studio that he could impress his clients with. Who wouldn’t want to hire a sculptor who had the good taste to live in this place?

Did French’s relationship with Chesterwood change over the 35 years he owned it, or did it remain the same?

I think the evolution was more that he became a factor in the community. He was a leader and a member of many arts organizations around the world. But now he became involved in the Berkshires. He became friendly with Edith Wharton and invited her over. Isadora Duncan danced in his garden. His daughter [Margaret French Cresson] made it a social center for the younger generation. But it was all his vision. He did everything. He chose the paints, he went to flea markets and bought the furniture. Again, everything was a pedestal for his vision of himself, and ultimately, his art.

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Nicholas Som is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He enjoys museums of all kinds, Philadelphia sports, and tracking down great restaurants.

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