Daniel Chester French

Daniel Chester French (1850-1931) was one of the country’s leading monumental sculptors. His major works include the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. and The Minute Man in Concord, Massachusetts.

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Photo: View of the Lincoln Statue being cleaned by James Hudson, who died at the Lincoln Memorial 4 July 1993. 4 June 1991. – Lincoln Memorial, West Potomac Park, Washington, District of Columbia, DC, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.

Singing these words from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Concord Hymn” on July 4, 1837, the citizens of that town dedicated an obelisk at their Old North Bridge, commemorating the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Thirty-eight years later, on the centenary of the battle, a new and even more dramatic monument would be erected, on the opposite side of the bridge. The Minute Man, a mesmerizing bronze statue of a young plowman, eyes ablaze, musket in hand, had been commissioned by Emerson from a young New England sculptor, Daniel Chester French.

French, who was born in Exeter, New Hampshire and studied in Boston with William Hunt, had come highly recommended to Emerson from the Transcendentalist community. Indeed, it was Louisa May Alcott who had first encouraged French’s vocation as a sculptor, and it was with Samuel Ward, one of Emerson’s close friends, that French continued his training in Brooklyn. The instant popularity of his Concord monument gave French the opportunity to study in Italy in 1876 before opening his first studio, in Washington, D.C., where his father was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury. After a decade of adorning customs houses and post offices, French traveled to Paris, made the friendship of American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and executed an arresting statue of General Lewis Cass for the Capitol in Washington.

From this point on, French built his career as the preeminent monumental sculptor in America. Infusing the neo-classical tradition of statuary with a penetrating new realism and lively animation, he created dramatic compositions in marble and bronze such as Alma Mater at Columbia University, The Angel of Death and the Sculptor (replica at Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City), Andromeda (at Chesterwood, French’s home in the Berkshires that is now a museum), and the Lincoln Memorial. In addition to these large-scale works, French proved himself to be adept at smaller sculptures, among them his 1879 portrait head of Emerson, who exclaimed upon seeing it: “Yes, that is the face I have!”

French is buried in Concord not far from Authors Ridge, where Emerson and the Alcotts lie.

–Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I Hear America Singing

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