Daniel Chester French

American sculptor Daniel Chester French was born in Exeter, New Hampshire, on April 20, 1850, the son of a lawyer who later became a judge and a government official. Reared in Cambridge and Concord, Massachusetts, French was embraced by members of Concord’s Transcendentalist community including Branson Alcott and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Author and fellow resident Louisa May Alcott encouraged French to pursue a career as an artist and Louisa’s younger sister, May Alcott, was an early teacher.

With Emerson’s assistance French received his first big commission at age 22 for the statue The Minute Man, which was unveiled on April 19, 1875. Located near the North Bridge in what is now the Minute Man National Historical Park in Concord, this work commemorates events at the bridge, the site of the shot heard ’round the world that sparked the Revolutionary War. Now an American icon, the Minute Man statue’s image has appeared on war bonds, postal stamps, and posters, most famously during World War II.

The Minute Man, Concord. Photochrom print, c1900. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

With the success of the Minute Man came opportunities to study abroad. After two years in Italy, French opened a studio in Washington, D.C., on the site of what is now the Library of Congress, and also worked in New York. His father’s connections, additional trips to Europe, and a friendship with fellow sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens all resulted in opportunities for increasingly ambitious work, beginning with the impressive General Lewis Cass of 1888, French’s sole work in the National Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol. In 1893, French was selected to create the monumental Statue of the Republic for the World’s Columbian Exposition.

Lincoln Memorial. Statue of Lincoln II. Theodor Horydczak, photographer, ca. 1920-1950. Horydczak Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

By the turn of the century, French was America’s preeminent monumental sculptor. He is best known for his colossal seated figure of Abraham Lincoln, which looms large within the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. After creating several working models at increasingly larger scales, French hired the renowned Piccirilli Brothers marble cutting workshop to realize the 19-foot-high Lincoln. The firm worked for more than a year to fashion twenty-eight blocks of white Georgia marble into the final form, which French himself further refined in their studio and later perfected in place once installed at the memorial.

Other well-known works from French’s long career include The Angel of Death Staying the Hand of the Sculptor created for Boston’s Forest Hills Cemetery; a seated John Harvard at Harvard University; a standing Abraham Lincoln at the west entrance to the Nebraska State Capitol; and the Richard Morris Hunt Memorial in New York City’s Central Park.

Chesterwood, Daniel Chester French’s Studio, Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Carol M. Highsmith, photographer, July 27, 2009. Highsmith (Carol M.) Archive. Prints & Photographs Division

French’s work on the Lincoln Memorial is the most well-known of his several significant collaborations with architect Henry Bacon (1866-1924), who designed dozens of architectural settings for French’s sculptural work, including the earlier standing Lincoln statue. Other well-known examples include the Lafayette Monument (Brooklyn), Dupont Memorial Fountain (Washington, D.C.) and Russell Alger Memorial Fountain (Detroit)—as well as French’s own studio and summer house.

In 1896, French and his wife, Mary Adams French who he had married in 1888, bought a farm in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, which he named “Chesterwood.” Together with his friend and colleague Bacon, French built first a studio and later a large residence; the property included extensive gardens which French also designed.

Daniel Chester French died at Chesterwood on October 7, 1931 after a long and storied career. The estate at ChesterwoodExternal was bequeathed by his daughter to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1969, and continues today to be open to tours by the public.

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