In 1873 an unknown, 23-year-old college dropout was given the commission to create a monument to the Minute Man who dropped his plow to fight at North Bridge in Concord, Mass., on April 19, 1775.
The 100th anniversary of the shot heard ‘round the world was approaching, and the citizens of Concord wanted to honor the farmers and tradesmen who battled professional British soldiers.
They decided to award the commission to Daniel Chester French, who had never executed a full-size statue. They had their reasons: His father was well-connected in town, and he had taken art lessons from Louisa May Alcott’s little sister, who vouched for his talent.
Daniel Chester French was born April 20, 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 who 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.
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 Battles 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.
The Boston Athenaeum and the neighbors supplied models. French studied a plaster cast of the classic Roman statue Apollo Belvedere at the Athenaeum for his composition and his neighbors for facial expression and realistic detail. The neighbors also supplied him with antique Minute Man clothing and a Colonial musket, powder horn and plow.
The Ames Foundry in Chicopee, Mass., cast the sculpture in bronze from confiscated Civil War cannons. They pronounced it the best casting they’d ever done. It was called ‘one of the strongest, most spirited pieces of work ever made by so young an artist.’
The statue was an instant hit. It still stands today by the Old North Bridge where 500 militiamen defeated three companies of British troops.
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 topped off his career with his masterpiece, the Lincoln Memorial.
Some of French’s works around New England include:
- The statue of General Joseph Hooker in front of the Massachusetts Statehouse
- The Concord Minuteman, Concord, Mass.
- The St. Paul’s School War Memorial, St. Paul’s School, Concord, N.H.
- Commodore George H. Perkins monument at the New Hampshire State House
- The Melvin Memorial, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Mass.
- The Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Memorial, Cambridge, Mass.
- Wendell Phillips in the Boston Public Garden
- Head of Victory, Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, Mass.
- The George Robert White Memorial, Boston, Mass.
- The John Harvard Monument, Harvard Yard, Cambridge, Mass.
- The Spirit of Life, Paul’s Episcopal Church, Stockbridge, Mass.
- “Public Drinking Fountain” (“Chief Konkapot”), the Town Park Village Green in Lee, Mass.
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