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Reading 2: Chesterwood: Home and Workplace

After he purchased the farm that was to become the estate of Chesterwood in 1896, Daniel Chester French was anxious to get to work. His first priority was building the studio. Because the barn was located just a short walk from the house and had a wonderful view, French had it moved so he could use its site for his studio. Then French commissioned his friend, architect Henry Bacon, to design and oversee the construction of his workplace.

When completed, the studio had all the space and technical features a sculptor could want. The workroom was 30 by 30 feet. The 22 foot ceiling rose to 33 feet at its highest point, enough to accommodate even the largest statue. A huge skylight in the north roof and banks of windows on the north and east walls provided ample lighting. Shades on the windows controlled the amount of light. The most remarkable feature was the revolving modeling table mounted on a flatcar on a short section of railroad track leading outside through 22-foot high double doors. Since much of French's work was to be placed outdoors, the artist believed it was important to be able to move a work in progress outside from time to time to see how it was affected by sunlight.

The workroom also contained sculptures in various stages of completion, as well as tools, equipment, and material for producing plaster casts. Portable steps provided access to the top of tall statues. Smaller sculptures were placed on modeling stands that could be rolled to any part of the studio. Shelves held plaster models French wanted to save. A hutch and two chests of drawers contained blueprints, paint supplies, and photographs of French's own work and that of other sculptors. A trap door in the workroom floor provided access to additional storage space in the basement.

Daniel Chester French spent half of the year at his home and studio in New York City. During the six months of the year that he lived at Chesterwood, he spent most of every work day in the studio. He appeared promptly at nine and worked until half past five, with a break for lunch. He generally worked with one or two assistants, who were responsible for preparing the clay, casting plaster models, and enlarging sculptures.

French also met with prospective clients in the studio. The clients first inspected works in progress and plaster casts of earlier works in the workroom. Then they moved into the one-story reception room to discuss design, schedule, and cost for the proposed sculpture. The reception room was very different from the functional workroom. It contained a piano, a fireplace, and interesting furniture such as a carved chest containing costumes used by his models. A built-in bookcase held art catalogues, books on painting and sculpture, period costumes, and military equipment and uniforms. Double French doors led from the reception area to a formal garden with a fountain. The room was so pleasant that the family often used it to entertain guests. In bad weather, Mary French held Friday afternoon teas there, and French's daughter and her friends sometimes used the room for charades and other games.

On the south side of the studio, a piazza provided a view of Monument Mountain. The piazza was furnished with wicker chairs, pottery jugs and urns from Mexico, reproduction Egyptian stools, and large decorative pots for plants. A built-in bench along the wall was flanked by life-size figures from an early version of one of French's projects.

Like the studio, the house at Chesterwood was designed to take advantage of the views. Large windows faced Monument Mountain. French's bedroom on the second floor had the best view of all the rooms on that floor. Filled with images of his daughter, the house reflected French's pride in his family. One of the downstairs rooms recreated the parlor in the French homestead in Chester. Another room was paneled with woodwork taken from the farmhouse that stood on the Chesterwood property when French bought it.

Questions for Reading 2

1. What features made French's workroom so efficient?

2. Use a tape measure to determine the size of the workroom. Why do you think French's studio needed to be so large?

3. How was the reception room used by French and by his family? Why was it important to have such a pleasant room as part of the studio?

4. Why did the studio have a piazza? Do you think it is important for an artist to live in inspiring surroundings? Discuss.

Reading 2 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; Jane B. Gillette, "The Art of Living," Historic Preservation (March-April, 1992), and Michael Richman, Daniel Chester French: An American Sculptor (Washington, D.C.: The Preservation Press, 1976).

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