Fig. 3: Daniel Chester French (1850–1931), The Concord Minute Man of 1775, 1889, cast 1917. Bronze, 32½ x 17 x 18 inches. Navy Art Collection, Naval History and Heritage Command. This bronze casting is much smaller than the original statue, and was cast approximately fifteen years later.

Daniel Chester French’s (1850–1931) best known works are rooted in American culture and history. He sculpted the country’s heroes, philosophers, and patriots (Fig. 1). The Minute Man (1871–1875) in Concord, Massachusetts, launched his career, and the seated Abraham Lincoln (1911–1922) in Washington, D.C., marks the high point of his work. While much of French’s sculpture has been on view at Chesterwood, his studio in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, since his daughter, Margaret French Cresson, first opened it to the public in 1955, there has not been a major exhibition of his work since 1976. From the Minute Man to The Lincoln Memorial: The Timeless Sculpture of Daniel Chester French,” is the first exhibition to highlight how French’s grounding in Concord influenced his career and his most iconic works.

Born in Exeter, New Hampshire, on April 20, 1850, Daniel Chester French was the fourth child of Anne Richardson and attorney Henry Flagg French. In 1867 Henry Flagg French purchased an early farmhouse at 342 Sudbury Road in Concord, Massachusetts, and moved his family there (Fig. 2). The sculptor recalled that he “loved the place from [his] first glimpse of it.” 1 Although his family moved to Concord after the blossoming of Transcendentalism, the young sculptor matured surrounded by the Alcotts, the Emersons, and people who once knew Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller. French absorbed the theories of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thoreau about self-reliance, independence, and the belief in the purity of the individual, and he never lost his enthusiasm for Yankee frugality and wit.

The young Dan French, as he was known in his early years, enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but failed many of his courses. In the summer of 1868, French was working on the family farm, birding, hunting, and thinking about what to do next. Noticing his fondness for whittling and carving things from wood and gypsum, his father consulted May Alcott, the recognized “artist” in the community, and it was she who introduced French to modeling clay and tools.

One of his first modeling efforts was a dog for his close friend William Brewster, who would become one of the country’s great ornithologists. French wrote to Brewster about his frustrations with learning the craft: “I have modeled a pointer in clay, and intended to send him to you, and worked day and night, to finish him in time, but this morning to my horror and dismay I found that one of his legs has come off in drying, so that I shall be obliged to give it up.” 2 French persevered. He received advice and encouragement from May Alcott, sought further artistic training with William Rimmer and William Morris Hunt in Boston, and spent a month in John Quincy Adams Ward’s New York studio in 1870. He also went to Boston to sketch in its museums. Soon he was sculpting portrait busts and medallions of friends and family, small figures of animals, and diminutive tabletop genre groups for casting into Parian porcelain.

Fig. 1: Daniel Chester French in his Chesterwood studio, 1922, Chapin Library, Williams College, Gift of the National Trust for Historic Preservation / Chesterwood, a National Trust Historic Site, Stockbridge, Mass. (NT 73.45.5210).
Fig. 2: French house, 1787, Concord, Mass. Photograph by Simon Wing, August 28, 1878. Chapin Library, Williams College, Gift of the National Trust for Historic Preservation / Chesterwood, a National Trust Historic Site, Stockbridge, Mass. (NT 73.45 A1010).

In 1871, he was asked by a Concord town commission to design a monument for the west side of the North Bridge, the site of the opening battle of the American Revolution, on April 19, 1775. While showing promise as a sculptor, French had yet to create a work of such monumental importance. He initially worked at home, but when the Minute Man became too large, he moved the project to the Studio Building in Boston. For inspiration, French visited the Boston Athenaeum to study the plaster casts of classical statuary, in particular the Apollo Belvedere, whose heroic pose influenced the stance of the Minute Man (Fig. 3). He also made sketches of himself reflected in a mirror and commandeered various young men to pose for him. Working in his dimly lit, narrow studio, French modeled the seven-foot-high figure over the winter of 1873–1874.

Fig. 4: Concord studio with Endymion, 1880s. Alfred W. Hosmer, Chapin Library, Williams College, Gift of the National Trust for Historic Preservation / Chesterwood, a National Trust Historic Site, Stockbridge, Mass. (NT 73.45.5210).

French’s clay model was first cast in plaster and then sent to the Ames Foundry in Chicopee, Massachusetts, to be cast in bronze from melted down Civil War cannons. The Minute Man was unveiled at the centennial celebration on April, 19, 1875, which included such notable guests as President Ulysses S. Grant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, the first stanza of whose Concord Hymn was inscribed on the statue’s base. French was not present at the unveiling; in 1874, he had traveled to Florence, Italy, where he worked alongside the American sculptor Thomas Ball. In a letter to his son, Henry Flagg French described the ceremony and the public’s reaction to the statue. “This is fame, Dan!” he wrote. “Make the most of it, for you don’t know how long it will last.” 3

Returning to the United States in 1876, French spent some time in Washington, D.C., before settling back in Concord. During the summers of 1877 and 1878, he rented a studio in Boston, but “he had become so tired of working around in odd corners, in inadequate rooms with poor lights,” that he started thinking about establishing a studio of his own.4 His daughter, Margaret French Cresson, commented in her biography of French, Journey into Fame:

Concord seemed like the logical place for a studio; it had meant home for so many years. But a more practical reason was that Concord had become a magnet for the great of the land. Mr. Emerson’s presence was the loadstone that drew all the distinguished men and women of this generation to Concord. They came to him first, then they came to see the Alcotts. Surely they would come, too, to see Dan’s studio. That seemed to him a reasonable expectation. At any rate, he would give them a chance.5

Fig. 5: Concord Studio with fireplace frieze, 1886. Chapin Library, Williams College, Gift of the National Trust for Historic Preservation / Chesterwood, a National Trust Historic Site, Stockbridge, Mass. (NT 73.45.5222).
Fig. 6: Daniel Chester French (1850–1931), Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1879. Bronze. 21¾ x 11¾ x 10 inches. Gift of William T. Loomis and Leslie Becker, Concord Museum, Mass. (2013.11).

By March 1879, construction was underway. Writing to his sister, Harriette, French stated “It is going to be very convenient & pleasant.” 6 The finished studio workroom included shelves for casts, and, at one end a turntable that held the beginning of Force [Science Controlling the Forces of Steam and Electricity], a commission for the Boston Post Office. A reception room framed with yellow curtains boasted fashionable old furniture and had a painted border and rugs. French’s large-scale The Awakening of Endymion (ca. 1875–79; carved in Italy), occupied a corner (Fig. 4) and as he described, “there are ever so many little things that fill the empty spaces prettily. I have fitted up a window seat luxuriously with different colored cushions.” 7 French hosted parties in his new studio (Fig. 5), and often invited townspeople over to view his finished works. A ledger-sized guest book recorded signatures of his visitors, including Bronson Alcott and his daughter, Louisa May Alcott.

Fig. 8: Newton Mackintosh (American, 1858–1938), Cozy Corner, 1890. Oil on paper on laminate board, 11¼ x 16¾ inches. Chesterwood; gift of the Daniel Chester French Foundation (NT 69.38.701). Cassandra Sohn Photography, LLC
Fig. 7: Exterior of the Chesterwood studio, n.d. Chapin Library, Williams College, Gift of the National Trust for Historic Preservation / Chesterwood, a National Trust Historic Site, Stockbridge, Mass. (NT 73.45.5207.1)
Fig. 9: Daniel Chester French and his daughter, Margaret, at his Chesterwood studio, with the Longfellow Memorial relief, 1913. Chapin Library, Williams College, Gift of the National Trust for Historic Preservation / Chesterwood, a National Trust Historic Site, Stockbridge, Mass. (NT 73.45.5080).

The memorial depicts characters from Longfellow’s epic poems.
A bronze bust of the poet was installed in front of the relief.

In the midst of establishing his Concord studio, French took on another monumental project. His stepmother, Pamela Prentiss French, had urged him to make a bust of eminent Concord philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), “It would be a great feather in your cap and you must do it this winter. I’m afraid Mr. Emerson won’t keep. Those lights often go out so suddenly.” 8 In March 1879, French convinced Emerson to sit for him, and he wrote to his friend Ellen Ball, “I am modeling the philosopher at his own house. I begin it with many misgivings knowing how difficult is the task & how often it has been tried before. I have one advantage over others of having known him long & well, & if I fail it will have done no harm to try.” 9 Midway through the project, he had misgivings about the likeness, but on its completion he could tell his friend Ellen Ball, “[I]t is pronounced by all his friends the best likeness of him that exists. It is by far the best bust I ever made as I intended it should be, though by no means what I should have liked to do.” 10 French called the final portrait a topographical map of Emerson’s face, and the philosopher agreed, commenting with self-deprecating humor: “[T]he more it resembles me the worse it looks, [and] that’s the face I shave.” 11 In August 1879, French copyrighted the bust and made a series of plaster replicas to be sold for thirty dollars each. The bust was later carved in marble and cast in bronze (Fig. 6).

In 1886, French left Concord for Paris, a city he had long dreamed of visiting. Upon his return he married his first cousin Mary Adams French and moved to New York City, where he set up a home and studio at 125 West 11th Street. As it was fashionable for an artist to have a summer place, French continued to use the Concord studio between 1887 and 1895; in August 1889, their daughter, Margaret, was born in the house on Sudbury Road. In 1896, French purchased land in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where he would build his own “heaven on earth,” a residence and studio that would become known as Chesterwood (Fig. 7). Designed by architect Henry Bacon (1866–1924) and completed in 1898, the new studio resembled French’s Concord studio in interior design and aesthetic style. It boasted a roomy, sunlit and high-roofed work area lined with shelves of plaster casts, studies, and small completed works. The adjoining low-ceilinged reception room was separated from the main room by curtains and included antique furniture, an artistic clutter of blankets, pillows, books and eclectic decorations, and a “cozy corner” with a Pompeiian bed brought from the Concord studio (Fig. 8). From the Chesterwood studio emerged many of French’s great works for the Boston area, including the Francis Parkman Memorial (1897–1906; Forest Hills Cemetery, Jamaica Plain), the Joseph Hooker equestrian monument (1898–1903; Beacon Hill, Boston), the Melvin Memorial (1906–1909; Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord [see figure 10]), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Memorial (1913; Cambridge) (Fig. 9), and the George Robert White Memorial (1924; Boston Public Garden).

Fig. 10: Daniel Chester French in his Chesterwood studio with Mourning Victory from the Melvin Memorial, 1907. Marble, 120½ x 57¼ x 28¾ inches. Image, Chapin Library, Williams College, Gift of the National Trust for Historic Preservation / Chesterwood, a National Trust Historic Site, Stockbridge, Mass. (NT 73.45.A56.2)
Fig. 11: Daniel Chester French with model of Abraham Lincoln in the Chesterwood studio, ca. 1920. Chapin Library, Williams College, Gift of the National Trust for Historic Preservation / Chesterwood, a National Trust Historic Site, Stockbridge, Mass. (NT 73.45.5002).

French created small models for the Melvin Memorial in his New York studio, but the enlargement was done at Chesterwood (Fig. 10). Collaborating with architect Henry Bacon, the memorial possesses a sculptural bravura that sets it apart from contemporary Civil War memorials. Considered one of French’s masterpieces, the sculptor himself remarked, “I have seldom felt as happy over any of my works after they were set up.” 12

By 1914, Concord officials had raised enough money to commission another Emerson portrait from French. For this seated version, French relied on photographs, daguerreotypes, and his own earlier work to represent the philosopher in his prime, clad in the heavy Gaberlunzie gown that he wore in his study during the winter months. Unveiled in May 1914, the statue stood by the entrance to the Concord Free Public Library’s circulation area until the 1960s, when it was moved to the lobby.

The seated figure of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., unveiled on May 30, 1922, marks the culmination of French’s career. The depth of expression and gravitas that French explored in his portrait of Emerson is brought to a dramatic climax (Fig. 11): the colossal figure seated within architect Henry Bacon’s “sacred space” is both pensive and powerful, a philosopher and a president.

At Chesterwood, French retained the “earth-bound as well as sky-bound” philosophy he absorbed in Concord and enjoyed a long and successful career. The residence was well-suited for a steady stream of summer guests, and much entertaining was done in the studio and garden. French wrote of Chesterwood to his friend Newton Mackintosh, “It is as beautiful as Fairyland here now… I go about in an ecstasy of delight over the loveliness of things.” 13 Even so, French remained connected to Concord, writing in January of 1930, “I have always felt closer to Concord than to any other town in the world.” French died at Chesterwood in 1931 and was buried in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, not far from Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott, and the Melvin Memorial. His gravestone, designed by his daughter, Margaret French Cresson, includes a laurel wreath bound by sculpting tools and the words, “A Heritage of Beauty.”


This article was originally published in the Autumn/Winter 2013 issue of Antiques & Fine Art magazine. AFA is affiliated with Incollect. The article was originally titled: A Heritage of Beauty: "From the Minute Man to The Lincoln Memorial: The Timeless Sculpture of Daniel Chester French"