Daniel Chester French is probably best known for creating the Lincoln Memorial.
Born into a prominent New England family, his artistic leanings surfaced early. In his late teens his family moved to Concord, MA. Concord friends include the Alcott family. Louisa May Alcott’s youngest sister, Abigale May, worked with him to learn sculpture and gave him supplies. A prominent artist and a pioneer in the art therapy field, the character Amy, in Little Women, is based on her life.
French came of age as an artist during the American Renaissance. Around the centennial of the American Revolution, American art began to find her own voice. This period in art and architecture echoed the general feeling in America that is was time to abandon the neoclassical aesthetic. American self-confidence was high, post-Civil War sentiments saw America as the heir to Greco-Roman political systems and laws. Another important art movement of the day is The Hudson River School. Realism took center stage.
His First Commission…
Daniel Chester French first gained acclaim with his sculpture of The Minuteman; commissioned by the town of Concord to commemorate the centennial of the Battle of Lexington and Concord. French’s Minuteman is a rugged interpretation. It leaves behind any of the romantic tendencies of the past. This style would serve him well throughout his career.
The Minuteman also gave him the opportunity to work closely with long-time neighbor and family friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson. French would produce two works of Emerson. A bust, that Emerson found so realistic he said “Dan, that is the face that I shave.” The other was commissioned by the town of Concord after Emerson’s death. It is a a full seated impression. Finished in 1914, it is easy find similarities to the Lincoln Memorial. French began the Lincoln Memorial that same year. lt would open to the public in 1922. Both Emerson works have a permanent home at the Concord Free Public Library. Both French and Emerson are buried at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord. Emerson had given the dedication speech there less than 30 years before. Also on the grounds is French’s Mourning Victory sculpture. Part of the Melvin Memorial, it honors the three Melvin brothers killed in the Civil War.
French produced over 75 important sculpture works in his lifetime. Additionally, he founded the National Sculpture Society, The Berkshire Playhouse (which would become The Berkshire Theater Festival), he was a founding member of the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts and was a trustee for the Metropolitan Museum.
The First French Biography…
Up until now, there has never been a comprehensive biography of Daniel Chester French. Our guest on A House Divided, Harold Holzer, has thankfully changed that. Full of rich detail and beautiful archival photographs, Monument Man is a nuanced study of a preeminent artist whose evolution ran parallel to, and deeply influenced, the development of American sculpture, iconography, and historical memory. It is brought to us by the Princeton Architectural Press.
Harold Holzer, winner of the 2015 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize, is a Lincoln scholar and the author of numerous books on Civil War era art and history. He currently serves as the director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College, City University of New York. In 2008 he was awarded the National Humanities Medal. Like Daniel Chester French, he worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Holzer’s tenure lasted over 20 years.
–M. Sylvia Castle