Today in History

Today in History: April 20

Daniel Chester French

Statue and man standing near it
Marble Group by Daniel Chester French Goes to Corcoran Art Gallery,
Photographic print, Underwood & Underwood, 1931.
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

American sculptor Daniel Chester French was born in Exeter, New Hampshire, on April 20, 1850.

Reared in Cambridge and Concord, Massachusetts, he was embraced by members of the Transcendentalist community including Ralph Waldo Emerson. Author and fellow Concord resident Louisa May Alcott encouraged French to pursue a career as an artist. Louisa's artist sister, May Alcott, was his early teacher.

French received his first big commission for the statue The Minute Man, which he completed in 1875. Located near the North Bridge in the Minute Man National Historical Park in Concord, this work commemorates events at the bridge, the site of "the shot heard 'round the world." An American icon, images derivative of the Minute Man statue appeared on defense bonds, stamps, and posters during World War II.

With the success of the Minute Man came opportunities to study abroad. After a year in Italy, French opened a studio in Washington, D.C., on the site of the Library of Congress. Additional trips to Europe and a friendship with fellow sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens resulted in more ambitious work beginning with the impressive General Lewis Cass, the sole work in the National Statuary Hall of  the U.S. Capitol, which he completed in 1888.

Lincoln Memorial
Statue of Lincoln,
Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C.,
Theodor Horydczak, photographer, circa 1920-1950.
Washington as It Was: Photographs by Theodor Horydczak, 1923-1959

By the turn of the century, French was America's preeminent monumental sculptor. He is best known for his colossal seated figure of Abraham Lincoln, which presides over the Lincoln Memorial. The Angel of Death Staying the Hand of the Sculptor, created for Boston's Forest Hills Cemetery; John Harvard, located at Harvard University; a bust of Ulysses S. Grant, and a standing Abraham Lincoln at the west entrance to the Nebraska State Capitol are a few of the monuments that French produced during a long and productive career.

French and his wife bought a farm in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, for his studio and their summer home. He also designed and built a large residence there, which he named “Chesterwood.” The property included gardens which he also designed; the estate (external link) was bequeathed to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1969. Daniel Chester French died on October 7, 1931.

Minuteman Statue
The Minute Man, Concord
Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920