Arts and Leisure

Lincoln Memorial: A New England Prodigy’s Masterpiece

The Lincoln Memorial was the work of a New Englander with connections to the right people. That’s not to say Daniel Chester French wasn’t a great sculptor–or that his powerful and sensitive Lincoln Memorial isn’t one of the greatest sculptures in America. But it is fitting for Washington’s most beloved monument to owe its existence to a skillful networker.

Daniel Chester French, 1902.

Daniel Chester French, 1902.

Daniel Chester French was born in 1850 in Exeter, N.H., the scion of an old and well-to-do New England family. His father, Henry Flagg French was a lawyer, judge and, later, assistant U.S. Treasury Secretary. He was also an avid horticulturist, wrote a book about farm drainage and served as the first president of the Massachusetts Agricultural College (now University of Massachusetts) at Amherst.

In 1867, Henry Flagg French moved his family to Concord, Mass., where he befriended two neighbors: philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson and writer Louisa May Alcott. Young Daniel didn’t care for school, preferring to explore the outdoors with his good friend William Brewster, later a famed ornithologist. He liked to make figures of animals from wood, gypsum and even turnips.

Another neighbor, May Alcott, Louisa’s sister, was an artist as well as the model for Amy in Little Women. She was impressed by young Daniel Chester French’s work. She encouraged him to keep at it and gave him drawing lessons, modeling clay and sculptor’s tools.

Starting down the path to the Lincoln Memorial

With the help of family friends such as Alcott and Emerson, French hit on the right career path. He lived in an era when artists were esteemed for their contributions to the monuments that glorified the nation’s past and seemed to assure its destiny, as author Alan Emmet put it.

French dropped out of MIT after a year, having flunked algebra, chemistry and physics. He moved to New York to study with two famous artists, John Quincy Adams Ward and William Rimmer. He didn’t like city life, though, and returned home to Concord.

At 20, he arrived just in time. He was asked to submit a model for a statue of a Minute Man to commemorate the centennial of the Battle of Concord and Lexington. He got the commission in 1873, but it was an unusual one. Instead of receiving a fee, he would be reimbursed for his studio, tools and materials. His neighbors supplied him with antique Minute Man clothing and a Colonial musket, powder horn and plow. The statue was an instant hit. It still stands today by the Old North Bridge where 500 militiamen defeated three companies of British troops.

Workers install the Lincoln Statue at the Lincoln Memorial

Workers install the Lincoln Statue at the Lincoln Memorial

Helped by his father’s position at the Treasury, French received commissions for works on government buildings over the next 14 years. His career got a jumpstart in 1893 when he sculpted the giant Statue of the Republic for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. He worked on preparations for the Exposition with architect Henry Bacon of McKim, Mead & White, one of the preeminent firms of the day.

French and Bacon would become lifelong friends and partners in a number of artistic endeavors. When French and his wife Mary bought an 80-acre farm in Stockbridge, Mass., it was Bacon who designed a new studio, house and garage. The Frenches also landscaped formal gardens and added a tennis court, calling the estate Chesterwood, after the New Hampshire town where French’s grandparents lived. You can visit Chesterwood today.

Bacon was also chosen to design the neoclassical temple that would contain a large sculpture of Abraham Lincoln. He, in turn, chose Daniel Chester French to sculpt that statue.

The Lincoln Memorial

Construction of the Lincoln Memorial Building was already underway when French went to Washington to work out the plans for the sculpture. He and Bacon decided it should be 19 feet high. They also decided Lincoln should be seated — otherwise his face would be too high for people to see.

Beginning in 1915, French made large plaster models of the statue, using Matthew Brady photos for reference. He also used a life mask of Lincoln by Leonard Volk. His aim, he said, was “to convey the mental and physical strength of the great President and his confidence in his ability to carry the thing through to a successful finish.”

By 1918 it was time to start work on the real thing. French chose renowned marble cutters, the Piccirilli Brothers, to sculpt the statue in their New York studio. For two years, the Piccirilli brothers worked from French’s model to carve 28 blocks of marble quarried from Georgia. French helped out, hammering and chiseling his own touches onto the stone. Finally in December 1920, the blocks of marble were ready to be shipped to Washington to be assembled.

The silent, brooding Lincoln who presides over the banks of the Potomac has perhaps become more than French dared hope: it is a shrine to the ideal of tolerance and reconciliation. It is, after all, the place where Marian Anderson sang “God Bless America” in 1939 after the Daughters of the American Revolution forbade her to sing at Constitution Hall because of the color of her skin. It is the place where Martin Luther King, Jr., chose to deliver his “I Have A Dream” speech in 1968. It is the place where millions of tourists come every year to connect with a sacred icon of their own history.

‘To me, it’s defacing America’

Lincoln_Memorial_npsSo when dawn broke on Friday and word got out that green paint was thrown onto the Lincoln Memorial, Americans responded with bewilderment, anger and outrage. Said one passerby, “To me, it’s defacing America.”

Fortunately, the green paint was quickly washed off and the statue remains intact.

In 1929, the 79-year-old Daniel Chester French and his daughter Margaret French Cresson visited the memorial. He said to her, “Margaret, I’d like to see what this will look like a thousand years from now.” One can only wonder what he would have thought if he could have seen it just 94 years later.

Youtube video of Marian Anderson’s Lincoln Memorial concert

What’s More…

Thanks to two books for this post,  So Fine a Prospect: Historic New England Gardens by Alan Emmet and No Better Hope by Brent Ashabranner

Douglas Yeo, a Boston Symphony Orchestra trombonist, is also a Daniel Chester French enthusiast. His blog features photos of many of French’s sculptures.

Some of French’s works around New England include

Lincoln Memorial undergoing cleaning in 1991

Lincoln Memorial undergoing cleaning in 1991

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