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Saturday, June 8, 2013

Daniel Chester French

The Minute Man, 1875, Daniel Chester French
Yesterday (just below) as I was writing on the Lincoln Memorial, I realized I'd never written much on Lincoln's most famous sculptor, Daniel Chester French. In contemplating American art, sculptors tend to take a backseat to painters. This may, in fact, be true of art in general, but certainly in the case of American art. Sculpture never caught on as an important art form in this country as it did in Europe. For one thing, it was far more costly than painting, especially during the 19th century when sculpture meant mostly carving stone or cast bronze. Europe had money to spare. And, while Americans were not exactly destitute, what spare cash there was in this country more often went into infrastructure and business investments. I don't know, maybe Americans have always been more practical minded than their European counterparts. Certainly sculpture, among all the arts, may well be the least practical.

Photo by Daderot
The public tour of French's Chesterwood features both finished works and working models, as well as a look at the tools of his art.
Daniel Chester French was born in 1850.  He was a New England boy, the son of a lawyer, judge, and high federal official, growing up with neighbors like Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the literary Alcott sisters, Louisa May and Mary, both of whom influenced him to become a sculptor. He studied at M.I.T. for a year and, more importantly, spent several years studying in Florence. You don't get much better training as a sculptor than in the marble-strewn backyard of the Renaissance. In returning home around 1875, French first gained recognition for his famous bronze statue of the Minute Man (top) commissioned by the town of Concord, Massachusetts. Bouncing around from Boston to Washington, DC, to New York for a time, French's reputation and connections with the "gilded age" upper crust brought him a long string of commissions for famous American patriots at a time when such stone idolatry was at its peak of popularity.
Andromeda, 1931,
Daniel Chester French
During his lifetime, French was considered the best America had to offer in the art of sculpture, rivaled only by another sculptor of Lincoln, Mount Rushmore's Gutzon Borglum (on a larger scale) and Frederick Remington (on a smaller scale). He could easily be considered the equal of France's Auguste Rodin and Auguste Bartholdi (the Statue of Liberty). During the six months each year, French worked from his summer home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, which he called Chesterwood. It was there he first became associated with architect, Henry Bacon, his colleague on the Lincoln Memorial project. French called upon Bacon to design his studio and later supervise the building and remodeling of the house and other structures on the estate. During the winter French worked from a studio in New York. More than any other artist of the turn of the century period, Daniel Chester French was responsible for shaping and influencing traditional tastes and ideals in American art well into the 20th century, even extending beyond those of carved stone and cast bronze. He died at his beloved Chesterwood in 1931 at the age of 81. His final work, Andromeda (above, left), is displayed there today.
An excellent video on the man and his art: 
Daniel Chester French: Sculpting an American Vision

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