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French goes to Florence

Updated: Oct 28, 2021

Following on Daniel Chester French’s trip to Europe through his correspondence. Some letters are more interesting than others. The trials and tribulations of a New Englander on his way from London to Paris and then on to Firenze. Between the lines, an infinite source of amusement.

Come this winter, I’m planning to follow on his footsteps. In anticipation, here are the first paragraphs of one of his letters, this one to his brother Will. More will probably follow soon.

PS. I’m working on the interpretation of French’s accounts with an American, and Italian experts on French and Florentine Art. The underlined or bolded text is mine, and they point to clues in connection to the making of the film on Daniel Chester French. The letter was reproduced in its entirety.

4, Via Farinata degli Uberti , Firenze

November 23, 1874.

My dear Will, (his brother)

I hardly know where to begin this letter for the reason that I am not sure whether you have seen those that I have already written home. I think I will take for granted that you have seen or will see them, however, and not repeat any more than would be agreeable to you under those circumstances.

My trip across the ocean was very successful, being only too short. Had you seen me walking up the streets of Liverpool on the evening of our arrival, in company with a young and lovely maiden, you would not have seen the forlorn and homesick youth that you would have expected to view, from the fact of his being friendless at his departure from his native land. Did you ever hear Grace Hopkinson speak of Jim Ames? because this same Miss Ames is his sister. We had a very pleasant party as far as London where we separated for our different destinations.

London I found smoky and dirty and generally disagreeable as to weather, but with many interesting things to see. I saw most of the sights that I had intended to, but shall have enough to occupy me if I ever spend a month there. At the British Museum I saw the Portland Vase which you enquired about in your letter. (I ought to have acknowledged that letter at the beginning of this letter, for I can assure you it was welcome. I received it in Paris) The Vase is not more than eight or nine inches high; smaller than the imitation that Mother has I should think. It is made of blue glass, so dark that it looks black, except where the light strikes through it. The figures are raised as in Mother’s.

In the week that I spent in London, I failed to get much of an idea of the plan of the city, it is so mixed up, the streets are so crooked and narrow, and it is so big. Even a Bostonian may complain. Two weeks ago, Saturday, I left for Paris and reached that gay and lovely city after dark and had my first experience of making my wants known to a foreigner. I would strongly advise anybody meditating a descent upon a foreign land to learn that land’s language. It is possible to get along without, but decidedly inconvenient. As I was in an American house, I was not so bad, but bad enough. I saw the force of Dr. Fletcher’s arguments for terracotta. As I saw it in Paris, it certainly is the most beautiful material, to represent small figures in, that can be imagined. I hardly saw a plaster cast while I was there. I had a delightful time the week I was there and was sorry to leave. It is a most delightful city, full of beauty of all kinds. One of the most enjoyable days, I spent with Ned and Mrs Tuck,1 who drove with Miss Dolly Nelson and myself to Versailles, to the Palace of Louis 14th. I did long to have you with me there more than anywhere else. The gardens are so beautiful! Everything that money and taste could do has been done there. That old style of gardening (the geometrical style, they call it, don’t they?) is not so bad after all. The park there is laid out in straight lines, throughout, and it is very fine in its effects everywhere. They have plenty of statues and fountains and large trees to help them out, however. In some of the streets before coming to the Palace there are avenues of trees, two lines on each side of the road, the sidewalk running between, and these trees forty or fifty feet high are kept hedged in, so that the outer sides are perfectly rectangular. There you can’t tell much by that scratch. Can you? Mr. Tuck was very polite to me as was also Mrs. Tuck. I dined with them once, beside the day that we went to Versailles. Mrs. Tuck is a very pleasant lady only twenty-two or three years old (or, twenty-four) and received me very kindly.

I found all the artists in Paris of the realistic school and opposed to idealization of any kind apparently. Perhaps they are right, but I don’t believe it. I say, work from Nature, but improve on her, if you can. I don’t see why a photograph is not equal to the best drawing that ever was made, if things are merely to be copied. I am sorry that you have not been more successful in your business during the past year, for more reasons than one, not the least important of which is, that you might come over here to pass this winter. Also, I wish you could afford to have more time for drawing and painting. I wish you would try oils. But to return. There is any amount of art in Paris and I should like very much to study there some time, though perhaps it is a better place for painters than for sculptors. There were four artists at our table at Madame Foulley’s and we talked art so that some of the other people left for more artless quarters. The prima-donna, who sat opposite me, furnished the music of the conversation, and also added to the beauty of the same.

Well, I left Paris, Tuesday last at 3 P. M. and came to Florence, arriving at 6 o’clock Thursday afternoon. It was about as hard a journey as I ever took altogether, and I took a cold meanwhile, which still lends to my nose the brilliant hue, which is beautiful anywhere else. The guard came round to look at tickets Wednesday morning and told me in French that I ought to have changed cars some miles back on the road. I answered in English which was as intelligible to him as his French was to me. One of the passengers came to my assistance, however, after the conductor had disappeared and told me I should have to go back and take another train,—not very pleasant news to me. When the guard came back, he told me to follow him which I did and he put me in charge of a guard of another train going toward Florence, and after several changes, I caught up with the train I had missed, so that I reached Turin at the time I ought 10 o’clock P.M. Wednesday. Where I went, I don’t know, but as I came out all right, I don’t care. So much for not knowing the language.

You never saw anything finer than the scenery from Turin here or rather the last half of it, over the Apennines. Aside from the beauty of the country the road would delight you from a professional point of view. The bridges and tunnels and masonry along the road are wonderful. Almost the whole of the country from Turin to Florence was covered with snow when I came through, in some places among the mountains, to the depth of several inches.

Mr. & Mrs. Powers are as kind to me as if I were a blood relation and do all they can to make life pleasant to me. Florence is the most foreign city that I have seen, approaching my original ideas of it nearer than Paris or, in fact, any part of Europe I have been through. The city lies in a valley among the mountains, as I suppose you know, so that there are the most lovely views everywhere. Mr. Powers house is outside the city gates on a hill among many other American’s houses, in a most beautiful spot overlooking the city. Mr. Ball & Mr Fuller have studios near by. Mr. Hiram Powers’3 studio is still kept open to the public, part of it being occupied by Mr. Preston Powers.

Mr. Powers and I went in search of a room this morning and found a very good one just outside the Roman Gate,—near Mr. Gould’s4 studio. It is to be ready for my reception in a few days.

I haven’t entirely decided on my course of study, yet, but shall before long, and get at work as soon as possible.

Yesterday, I took a walk in the morning up an avenue near Mr. P’s house. It is a wonderful street bordered on each side by a row of cypress trees, said to have been planted by the Medici. You can imagine that they are old and large. Do you know the cypress tree? I did not. They are shaped like our poplar and are evergreen, in fact like a cedar on a large scale. It seems as if most of the trees on that avenue must be nearly a hundred feet high if not more. The avenue itself is more than a mile long, with the Roman Gate at one end and an old palace, now a girl’s school at the other. It is the most impressive place I was ever in, and seemed more like Hawthorne’s Marble Faun, than I imagined any place could.

Hiram Powers’s “The Greek Slave" Daguerreotyped

In the afternoon Preston Powers took me out for a walk and showed me Galileo’s Tower and all sorts of remarkable places, which are waiting for you to come and see. I haven’t been to any of the galleries yet but shall before I get much older. I have been invited out every evening since I arrived, and have been to Mrs Ball’s and Madame Power’s, both of whose houses are very handsome, and both of whose daughters add to that virtue, agreeableness. You never saw such a tribe of big girls as they have here. Miss Ball must be nearly as tall as I am, and the two Misses Powers are bigger if not taller. I don’t wonder that they think I look delicate, as I have heard they do. They all are very kind to me, however, and will probably take turns trotting me on their respective knees. We are having most lovely weather, though the houses are not as warm as they might be. The roses are in bloom as also are other flowers, and the leaves are green upon the trees. This is the first clear weather I have had since I left the Steamer.

I am writing this letter in the studio of Mr. Powers with the Greek Slave and her friends to keep me straight. I will find out about the Healey accusations if possible It looks now as if it would all be brought to light soon. Don’t I wish you were here? Your aff. brother

Dan. C. French.

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