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The Bohemians

Updated: Jul 4, 2022

Washington Square Art Fair by Thomas Hart Benton

By the time The Minutemen was ready to be unveiled in the presence of Emerson and Ulysses Grant, then sitting president of the United States, Daniel Chester French, the artist behind the monument was roaming the streets of Florence. Although there is a considerable amount of references explaining why the sculptor was not present at the time, I will always suspect that besides of all the right justifications, there was probably a certain degree of stage-fright. Of course I have no evidence, although in my experience I find it difficult to be present at the time that one’s work is being judge, particularly at a young age and considering the caliber of those present at the innauguration of The Minuteman in Concord. Nevertheless, the fact remains that French was not around for the dedication of his first and —for years to come— one of his better know works of art.

By the time he made it back from Italy, America was immerse in its own Renaissance, a period profoundly influenced by the Beaux-Arts that will resonate some 150 years later with the producers of The Gilded Age at HBO. In the series the nouveau-rich are moving north on Fifth Avenue which reminded me that almost everywhere the South side of most of the cities where I have lived have been reserved for the left-behind in the race for survival. Everywhere except in Rio de Janeiro the South side of the former capital of Brazil is synonymous with old money and class. Everywhere else, seems to be just the opposite. And then one needs to factor the Bohemians which eventually will show up to repurpose certain parts of the impoverish and neglected parts of town to make them more attractive for the creative class. The Village in New York was about ready for that transformation when the barons of The Gilded Age started to move uptown. It was then, more or less, give or take, that Daniel Chester French moves to West Eleventh St. with his wife Mary and his daughter Margaret. It seems that French was able to ride the wave of real-estate that will ultimately convert The Village into New York’s Left Bank, a site of creativity, a hub for the up and coming artist in New York. In fact, according to Dan Preston, editor of Daniel Chester French’s papers, the sculptor purchased and reconverted a number of stables on MacDougal Alley, the road immediately behind Eight St. used to keep carriages and probably used as living quarters by those caring for the horses. During a few years, both worlds cohabited, the horse and carriages, the animal feeders, and the painters and sculptors at work or selling their work to uptown visitors.

The two windows with flowers where one of French’s converted stables. c.1911

I believe that this perception of Daniel Chester French as one of the early enablers of The Village as a Parisian off-shore institution is relatively new. It was during this efforts that French mentored Gertrude Whitney, his friend and neighbor on MacDougal Alley. In fact, they occupied two adjacent studios on the eastern end of the alley which later served as first location for the Whitney Museum of American Art.

In 1907, Gertrude Whitney, leased a stable at 19 Mac Dougal Alley and had it remodeled into a studio. A budding sculptor, she was drawn to the area for the community of sculptors already working there. Among them was French, by then already a central figure in New York's cultural affairs; prolific sculptor and influential advisor to the Metropolitan Museun of Art. French’s studio, next to Whitne’s will eventualy become part of the museum she founded in 1930. Both Whitney and French lent immense prestige to the Washington Square district- Whitney, initially, for her nonpareil social prominence.

As I continue to research French for the upcoming documentary about him, the more I’m willing to challenge the idea of the timid and recluse. In fact, I suspect he was a man with an extraordinary sense of humor which is often immanent to the nature of the affable.

The information was there, within reach, in isolated papers and in a handful of books that caught my eyes during my last visit to New York. Most prominently New York’s Left Bank, Art and Artists off Washington Square North 1900-1950 by Virginia Budny and Around Washington Square by Luther S. Harris. The support of Daniel Preston and Dana Pilson should also be dully noted. They know the correspondence and have access to the records that help me on the process of rediscovering Daniel Chester French, and that often also have proving me wrong.

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