At Large  October 11, 2022  Cynthia Close

Daniel Chester French: The Lincoln Memorial's Sculptor

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Daniel Chester French in his studio, New York, c. 1889, Department of Image Collections, National Gallery of Art Library, Washington, DC

The Berkshires, a lush region of mountains, rolling green hills, and picturesque farmland in western Massachusetts, has long attracted artists looking to escape the summer heat and the frenetic year-round activity of nearby cities, New York, and Boston. One of those artists seeking a rural respite was American sculptor Daniel Chester French (1850-1931) who, near the height of his fame in 1896, bought 150 acres of farmland in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. With the help of his friend, architect Henry Bacon (1866-1924), he transformed a former farmhouse and barn into his summer estate and studio known as Chesterwood. 

Designed in 1901, this quietly elegant Georgian Revival style home surrounded by tranquil gardens and an adjacent studio became French’s preferred working environment. It was at Chesterwood where he created the preliminary drawings and six-foot scale model of his most acclaimed work: the colossal, seated figure of Abraham Lincoln which occupies a prominent place under the portico of the Bacon-designed Lincoln Memorial on the Mall in Washington, DC.  

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Daniel Chester French, Statue of Abraham Lincoln (Lincoln Memorial), 1920, Georgian marble

Although French completed his work on the Abraham Lincoln commission in 1920, it wasn’t unveiled until 1922, when it debuted along with the completed Memorial building. 2022 marks the official 100th anniversary of one of America’s most revered monuments sparking a host of public events bringing renewed attention to Chesterwood and the sculpture of Daniel Chester French.

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Daniel Chester French, Statue of The Minute Man, 1874, bronze and granite pedestal

Born in Exeter, New Hampshire to an upper-class New England family, French was exposed to a wide range of cultural influences and was supported by his family in his pursuit of art. French’s father was a lawyer and respected judge, and the family eventually settled in Concord, Massachusetts. This became the site of French’s first major commission, the bronze statue of The Minute Man (1874) completed when French was a mere 24 years old. Though this piece was originally intended to be carved in stone, it ultimately was cast from ten Civil War cannons. An ironically appropriate medium; the weapons of one war destroyed to become a monument to an earlier war, the American Revolution. 

Later that same year, French traveled to Italy to further study sculpture. While in Italy, The Minute Man was unveiled to great acclaim by art critics who called it a “masterwork in 19th-century American sculpture.” The general public echoed that sentiment, enthusiastically responding to its naturalism and attention to detail.

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Daniel Chester French, Statue of John Harvard, 1884, bronze

French invested years of research in imbuing his commissions with a sense of authenticity and humanity. In the case of Lincoln, he studied his character through biographies, photographs, and portraits, paying particular attention to a life mask and casts of the President’s hands.

No photographic evidence existed for another one of French’s commissions, that of John Harvard, the founder of Harvard University who died in 1638. French managed to incorporate details from that early history to create the quintessential, erudite “Harvard man.” In 1884, this imposing figure was unveiled on the campus of Harvard University where he remains today, shown to perspective student tours.

French also found great passion in painting. In 1885, he took lessons and studied in Paris the following year and frequently painted portraits of young women, family, and friends. French’s daughter, Margaret French Cresson, was his most frequent model—she sat for at least four oil portraits and five in pastel. Inspired by her father, she also studied art at the New York School of Applied Design for Women and became known as a portrait sculptor. And although French was talented and took pride in his two-dimensional practice, sculpture was where he invested his most serious efforts.

Sites of the National Trust for Historic Preservation

Daniel Chester French, Oil Portrait of Margaret French, 1909-1914

It was Margaret, French’s only child, who ensured that Chesterwood and her father’s legacy would be transferred to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Chesterwood is now a museum, a welcoming tourist destination, and an educational institution where aspiring artists have the opportunity to work in the same studio where French’s study for Lincoln sits like a sentinel. The grounds also host outdoor exhibitions of contemporary sculpture. Since 1978, over six hundred emerging and established sculptors from the region and beyond have exhibited their work in the annual show, Contemporary Sculpture at Chesterwood

French’s final work Andromeda, was left unfinished when he died in 1931. It is his most sensuous treatment of the nude female form and reflects his belief that “the beauty of woman is beauty at its best and highest.” A video of Andromeda on the Chesterwood website demonstrates the process that French devised for moving large scale works from the studio to the outdoors on his customized railroad track system so he could observe the effects of natural light on the form.

In 2019, Chesterwood commissioned Monument Man: The Life and Art of Daniel Chester French written by Harold Holzer, the biographer of Lincoln. This well-researched biography serves as an excellent guidebook for Chesterwood, a place that reflects the integration of art and life, just as French lived it.

About the Author

Cynthia Close

Cynthia Close holds a MFA from Boston University, was an instructor in drawing and painting, Dean of Admissions at The Art Institute of Boston, founder of ARTWORKS Consulting, and former executive director/president of Documentary Educational Resources, a film company. She was the inaugural art editor for the literary and art journal Mud Season Review. She now writes about art and culture for several publications.

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