Daniel Chester French (1850 – 1931)
From New England, Daniel Chester French became one of the leading sculptors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and is credited as a major influence in turning public preference from the style of Neo-Classicism to Realism. His naturalistic style was revolutionary because it featured historical figures in authentic clothing rather than romanticized, allegorical garb.
Many works by French are large public monuments. His first major commission was Minute Man, a Revolutionary War commemorative piece unveiled in April, 1875 for Concord, Massachusetts when he was age 24. His last major work, dedicated in 1922, was the ‘larger than life’ seated figure of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. Described as French’s “crowning achievement” and “the work with which he is most identified”, (Dearinger, 211) the site has become the most visited public memorial in America.
Daniel Chester French lived in Concord, Massachusetts during his youth and came under the influence of the circle of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Louisa May Alcott. Choosing to become a sculptor, he learned from William Morris Hunt, William Rimmer, and especially John Quincy Adams Ward, with whom he studied in New York in his studio for a month. In Italy, he studied with Thomas Ball, which gave him much exposure to Classical and Renaissance styles.
Returning to America in 1876, he moved to Washington DC, but stayed in close touch with the Massachusetts communities of Concord and Boston, completing portrait sculptures of leading citizens.
His father was serving as Secretary of the United States Treasury, which led to decorative sculptural commissions for several federal buildings. Between 1879 and the mid 1920s, French exhibited regularly at the National Academy of Design in New York City. Of special importance to his successful career was the recognition he received in 1884 when his life-size sculpture of John Harvard, founder of Harvard University, was unveiled.
Two years later, he went to Paris for ten months, primarily to learn techniques from contemporary French sculptors such as Auguste Rodin, who were working in modernist, realist styles.
Returning, French settled in New York City, and during the next decade, completed numerous public sculptures including Republic, Triumph of Columbia and Agriculture for the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition; and the Richard Morris Hunt Memorial located in New York at 70th Street and Fifth Avenue.
Participation in the Chicago Exposition was the beginning for French of an association that led to commissions with Charles McKim, prominent Chicago architect and one of the Exposition organizers.
In 1897, French established a home, Chesterwood, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and from that time divided his remaining 34 years between there and New York City. He completed many projects that grew his reputation including Alma Mater for Columbia University and Brooklyn and Manhattan, allegorical works positioned on each end of the Manhattan Bridge. For the west entrance of the state capital building in Lincoln, Nebraska, he did a life-size standing figure of Abraham Lincoln; and for the New York Customs House, he did four figural groups representing the world continents.
Daniel French, along with Augustus Saint-Gaudens, was also a key figure in developing the sculpture collection of living artists for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. In 1903, French was elected a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum, and until his death 28 years later, was the “de facto” curator of sculpture, building the core collection of the Museum’s “beaux-arts” works. His directive was to secure pieces by living artists whose pieces illustrated the development of that art in the United States. As a result, he visited the studios of all the leading sculptors, which led to important acquisitions including work by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Frederic Remington.
Daniel Chester French died in 1931 at Stockbridge. Of him, it was written: “After the death in 1907 of his friend Augustus Saint-Gaudens, French became America’s preeminent sculptor.” (Dearinger, 211)
David B. Dearinger, “Daniel Chester French”, Paintings and Sculpture in the Collections of the National Academy of Design, Volume 1
Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art
Peter Hastings Falk, Editor, Who Was Who in American Art
Peter Hassrick, Drawn to Yellowstone
Biography from the Archives of AskART