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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: The Sculptor, Daniel Chester French

Daniel Chester French, the youngest of four children, was born on April 20, 1850, in Exeter, New Hampshire. Both of his parents came from old New England families. His father, a lawyer, served as the first president of the Massachusetts Agricultural College and as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, in Washington, D.C., from 1876 to 1885.

French showed some talent for drawing as a child, but it was not until the family moved to Concord, Massachusetts, in 1867 that he became seriously interested in sculpture. Family friend Abigail May Alcott (the inspiration for Amy in Little Women), a painter and sculptor, gave him his first instruction in modeling in clay. His family encouraged his efforts, providing him with lessons with a sculptor and teacher of anatomy in Boston.

In 1873 Ralph Waldo Emerson, famous essayist, poet, and a family friend, helped French obtain his first major commission, the Minute Man. The statue was to be erected at the North Bridge in Concord to commemorate the centennial of the first battles of the Revolutionary War. The U.S. Congress authorized melting down ten Civil War cannons to provide bronze for the statue. Townspeople searched their attics for clothing worn by the militiamen in order for French to make his statue accurate in detail. Several Concord residents posed for the head; the body was based on a famous classical sculpture. President Ulysses S. Grant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and other important figures of the time attended the formal dedication in April 1875, but the sculptor was not among them.

French was in Florence, Italy, learning marble cutting, the making of plaster casts, and techniques for creating large pieces of sculpture; later he studied in Paris. Between these trips, he obtained commissions to produce portrait busts and monumental figures for public buildings. He received praise for both types of work, and his reputation grew.

French was selected to produce three large sculptures for the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago (the World's Columbian Exposition). Approximately 27 million people visited the exhibits and displays which were housed in some 200 buildings.¹ French's 65-foot-high statue representing the abstract ideal of the Republic was the centerpiece of that extravagant celebration. He soon had more commissions than he could handle. From the early 20th century until his death, French was regarded as the nation's foremost sculptor. His work was so popular that he often had to book commissions two or three years in advance. In the course of his career, he produced more than 100 portrait statues, allegorical or figurative memorials, and architectural sculptures and reliefs. He also served on numerous juries for sculpture competitions and found time to play an active role in the contemporary art world.

French's background and personality were well suited to his work as a public sculptor. A member of the social elite himself, he could move comfortably among the industrialists, businessmen, and civic leaders who were responsible for commissioning and building much of the grand architecture and sculpture of the period. He was sociable and had many friends, but at the core he was a reserved person. He tended to accept rather than criticize the established order, and his strong sense of patriotism was reflected in many of his public works.

French continued to work until his death in 1931 at the age of 81. Not many years before he died, he exclaimed, "I'd like to live to be two thousand years old and just sculpt all the time."² It seems fitting that his funeral took place in the studio at Chesterwood, where he was surrounded by the tools and the treasures of a long and productive life spent doing what he loved.

Questions for Reading 1

1. How was French's talent for sculpture first developed?

2. What role did Ralph Waldo Emerson play in French's early career? What role do you think that "contacts" play in artists' careers generally?

3. How did the opportunity to create works for the World's Fair in Chicago affect French's career?

4. What characteristics of French's personality contributed to his success as a public sculptor?

Reading 1 was adapted from Polly M. Rettig, "Daniel Chester French Home and Studio" (Berkshire County, Massachusetts) National Historic Landmark documentation, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1974; and Michael Richman, Daniel Chester French, An American Sculptor (Washington, D.C.: The Preservation Press), 1976.

¹ Stanley Applebaum, The Chicago World's Fair of 1893: A Photographic Record (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1980), 106.
² Margaret French Cresson,
Journey into Fame (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1947), 295.

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