Daniel Chester French , American Portrait sculptor, 1850-1931
Recently I had occasion to visit Daniel Chester French’s Chesterwood Estate in the Berkshire Hills outside the town of Stockbridge Mass. Just down the road from Norman Rockwell’s museum and operated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This wonderful place receives far too few visitors, especially when compared to the traffic jam heading to Rockwell’s museum.
And while I don’t begrudge Norman Rockwell, he had an astonishing career and did some wonderful work as an illustrator, Chesterwood and more importantly the life, times and work of French should not be missed and studied.
I’ve been before but I was delighted to be in studio once again where one has the feeling French has just left to have lunch at the house. Sadly studios tend to be far too clean as museums and yet they are thrilling places to visit - this one has enough work, real work, to make not only the visit but an investigation of French’s work very valuable.
Of course the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about French is Lincoln. It may seem ironic that while Lincoln appears to have made French “for the ages,” (borrowed from the Secretary of War, Stanton’s now disputed words upon Lincoln’s death – “And now he is with the ages,” or did he say “angels” as some now think.) The memorial also to some extent has had a hand in the making of the Lincoln image – I suppose you could say the Lincoln of the Lincoln Memorial fits one of the images that characterized Lincoln after his assassination – “Father Abraham,” and we love this image “for the ages.”
The Lincoln Memorial, a monumental and difficult undertaking given Lincoln’s importance, continues to hold its iconic place as one of the great monuments in this country and perhaps in the world; the Greek temple filled with the massive white marble sculpture of Lincoln does give one pause and has been used by so many as a back drop for political and social purpose. French could not have imagined how successful his work would become in that context. Amazingly enough Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd was there to dedicate the Memorial in May of 1922 (he died in 1926 at the age of 83).
French came of age precisely at the moment when America was in a mood to memorialize the Civil War (He lived until 1931). America was still very much rooted in narrative, literal storytelling traditions as French in his twenties came into his own after a brief encounter with John Quincy Adams Ward and others. Even though many Americans had been going to Europe for decades to follow those whose work had broken ground in the mid 1860s that led to abstraction, it really wasn’t until after 1913 that America begins to wake to this new vocabulary of form for real.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens, roughly contemporary to French, seems a far more interesting sculptor, whose work finds many of the same types of commissions and trajectory of memorialization that French’s did.
Still, all of that said, there are wonderful works that should not be missed either in person and in grand gestures as in the Lincoln Memorial or in the most intimate setting possible, in his studio in Massachusetts.