Monday, April 20, 2020

This Day in Art History (Daniel Chester French, Sculptor of Lincoln and Minute Man Memorials, Born)

Apr. 20, 1850—Daniel Chester French, who created sculptures that symbolized American resolve and righteousness for a reunited, more self-confident nation—most famously, statues of “The Minute Man”: in Concord, Mass., and Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C.—was born in Exeter, N.H.

Previously, I have posted on two of his works, The Lincoln Memorial and the George Westinghouse Memorial in Pittsburgh. But these are only two commissions for bronze and marble statues and monuments that he executed in his lifetime. French’s career as a whole is worth celebrating.

A combined studio-museum commemorating French’s grand achievement is located in Stockbridge, Mass., the same town where Norman Rockwell created illustrations that likewise imprinted themselves on the American imagination. 

French, earning his money primarily through public commissions, molded larger-than-life figures who flourished in extraordinary circumstances. Rockwell, working in the heyday of mass commercial art, caught the man on the street in his everyday world—at work, at home, at play. 

The emotions they evoked—heroism, patriotism, sentimentality—often appear to be relics of a bygone era. Yet the sight of these works summon forth more than a glimmer of recognition; they also induce stabs of wistful nostalgia and dreams of a more innocent, more reverend time. “I fear my inclination,” French confessed to a friend in 1919, “is to ignore too much the gloom and emphasize the beauty and joy of life—leaving out the snake which alas! was devised with Paradise.”

Together, the lives of French and Rockwell spanned a century and a quarter. They shared several common traits, besides their unabashed attachment to America and to Stockbridge;

*Both were born in New York City but came to Stockbridge in middle age when they were already well established in their careers. 

*Both became famous while still only in their 20s and remained famous and productive into their 70s. 

*Both achieved their enormous success through a fierce work ethic and a Yankee sense of thrift.

Today, only three-quarters of a mile from each other, two museums honoring these artists have become major tourist attractions in Stockbridge. Chesterwood, the summer home, studio and garden of French, is a historic home museum of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Norman Rockwell Museum opened in 1993, the successor to a smaller museum on the town’s Main Street that even years ago could no longer accommodate the flood of tourists making their way here. 

I have visited Chesterwood twice, most recently in 2017. Walking through it while looking about at the nearby Berkshire Mountains, I felt as enthralled as French did a century ago. I also felt it a great opportunity to reflect on the values that, more than clay, provided the binding agent for his greatest work.

French: Sculptor of a Nation Ascendant

As creative as he was, French was also a practical businessman, equally adept at securing clients, balancing the books, and bringing the work to fruition. 

In his youth, two neighbors in Concord, Massachusetts, Abigail May Alcott (sister of novelist Louisa May, and an artist in her own right) and Ralph Waldo Emerson, lent him material support and promoted his work. Later, Berkshire neighbors and artist friends continued to provide him with an excellent network of clients when he moved to Stockbridge in 1897. 

You begin to appreciate how important these visitors were when you see the reception room just off the studio in Chesterwood. The fact that he would make time for visitors, whether they were clients or just fellow artists who could provide feedback, is reinforced by their proximity to his work.

Nevertheless, French was careful to separate the creative and the social sides of his work. He always kept careful track of his business, down to the most copious notes on expenditures (a practice that proved a godsend to the estate’s staff in recent years as they sought to catalogue their holdings). 

Equally important was French’s self-discipline—an iron commitment to, and passion for, his work. “I’d like to live to be two thousand years old and sculpt all the time!” he once exulted to his son-in-law, William Penn Cresson. (As it happened, French worked all the way to the end of his life—Andromeda, left unfinished at the time of his death in 1931, is on display in the studio.)

Chesterwood's studio, residence, barn gallery, and collections gallery contain almost 500 statues, 23 oil paintings, and 13 portrait pastels by French—including an early version, in the garden, of his Standing Lincoln, on display in the Nebraska State House. (A detail of this is in the photo I took accompanying this post.)

These creations responded to—and, in turn, helped shape—a grandiose style of public urban art. It was no accident that even in its own day, the late 19th and early 20th century became known as the American Renaissance in the art world. The Industrial Revolution swelled the population of many American cities, feeding their desire to become the new Athens, Rome, or Florence. Public squares, municipal parks, and sweeping boulevards proliferated. 

The event that ensured public statuary for these civic improvements was the Civil War. Veterans’ groups and civic commissions felt the need to pay tribute to departed heroes of the conflict, to ensure that they had not died in vain. By this time, too, a generation of American-born sculptors had gained valuable training in Italy and Paris, increasing their versatility with bronze as well as marble. 

Thus, a confluence of available money, a deeply appreciative public, and more skilled sculptors produced a golden age of American public monuments, generally agreed as stretching from Saint-Gaudens’ David Farragut Memorial in New York in 1881 to French’s Abraham Lincoln in 1922.

As passionately dedicated as he was to his work, French still found time for other pursuits at Chesterwood. After living in the farmhouse for four years, French and his wife had a villa built by his friend Henry Bacon, an architect who worked with French on a number of projects throughout his career, including the Lincoln Memorial. 

When not sculpting from nine to five, French enjoyed painting, planting fields, tending gardens, and holding parties and relaxing with his wife and daughter Margaret.

Margaret, herself an artist, remained committed to her father’s memory throughout her life. Before she died at age 84 in 1973, she bequeathed the estate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, along with its art collection and an archive of more than 100,000 items.

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