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Notes on Daniel Chester French

Updated: Jul 4, 2022

By Jeffrey Plank - Daniel Chester French will use selected major works to identify and elucidate the important and very difficult artistic questions that French seeks to define, address, and answer. For too long critical reception of French has been limited by a formulaic conception of the genre of public art, perhaps because in our time so much public art of post-Civil War America has been tied to positions about race and gender that simply cannot be defended.

Howard M. Metzenbaum U.S. Courthouse, Cleveland, Ohio

For French, and for his sculptor competitors and architect colleagues, public art that featured the male and female form posed fundamental questions about the possibility of art and architecture to have a civic role—beyond the private or commercial sector—and for the human form to represent shared social values. How can the human form communicate our human nature? How can the image of a particular individual be made to express our collective humanity? Can art works be released from the private gallery or public museum and become permanent features of daily life in the American landscape? Can the ancient precedents of public sculpture serve a modern democracy that is recomposing itself from a civil war? That we now are more comfortable with more abstract representations of civic virtue—or that we accept the monetization of art as a measure of value—has closed off to us the series of extraordinarily experimental and innovative sculptures that French produced, with the exception, perhaps, of his figure of Lincoln, the personification of social justice.

Is Lincoln the exception or the rule for French? Daniel Chester French will make the case that Lincoln is the rule, that each of his major works constitutes an exercise in, a study in the visualization of, transcendence through apparently representational human figures. To think of French in this way places him at the intersection of important movements in nineteenth-century American and European philosophy, literature, art, and politics.

Integral to this new case for French is an appreciation of the way he plays off the male and female figure over his entire career. Typically his male figures represent particular individuals; the female figures, mythological characters or personifications. It might be said that it is with the female form that French has the most artistic freedom, and that his investigation of that form, with live models, sustains French’s artistic development. By contrast French has no living models for his male figures; the apparent particularity of the male face and male figure is his artistic fiction. To see French at work on the problem of representational art we must look closely; indeed, we must pause and take a fresh look at works of public art that have been in plain view for more than one hundred years.

The advantage of film over text, including this text, is that it can enable its audience to think with its own eyes. In our Daniel Chester French film our onscreen talent will point to French’s sculptures so as to break down conventional looking and replace it with a new kind of looking that measures each work against French’s success with particular challenges. As part of this pointing, so to speak, onscreen commentators will introduce salient information about commissions, his working methods and materials, his models, his collaborators and competitors, and the social and artistic impact of each work, and we will illustrate this commentary with on-location still and moving images. Because each commission—and each sculpture—is different the information provided by on-screen commentators will be new each time, but what will be the same will be the pointing, the movement toward the visual image of the sculpture. If our film is successful the audience will take away a new way of looking at French’s male and female figures and a new appreciation of the high moral responsibilities that French took on with his public art. French appears to have internalized these moral responsibilities and expressed them only with his hands and chisels, but they speak to a conception of artist very different from the one we know best: French is not the modern artist who expresses his individuality, but the early modern artist who attempts to express the humanity shared by a small town, a large city, or an entire nation. To be able to see French’s work now is to be able to begin to appreciate the possibilities of a public art in our own time.

Here are the works we’ve tentatively selected as the stages or episodes in the film, along with the themes we will share with the on-screen talent so as to provoke fresh thinking and the constant pointing to the visual image:

THE MINUTEMAN (1871-75): French and the mastery of classical and Renaissance traditions of public sculpture; his studies in NY with John Quincy Adams Ward and anatomical studies in Boston with William Rimmer; his trip to Florence as a disciple of Thomas Ball. We are contemplating a trip to Florence to review the sculptures that French noted in his letters a particularly important to his development.

THE RICHARD MORRIS HUNT MEMORIAL (1896-1901): French and collaboration with the architect Bruce Price; architect as subject; the relation of art and architecture in French’s career, especially the role of architecture in positioning public art for outdoor public viewing, analogous to the positioning of art in interior volumes for indoor viewing

EQUESTRIAN WASHINGTON (1900): French and Washington as a national subject; exchanges of statues between France and the United States, St. Gaudens and French; introduction of French’s collaboration with the architect Henry Bacon who designed the Chesterwood studio, where French began work on the Washington statue

THE CONTINENTS (1907): French and the representation of nation-building; multiple figures and story-telling at very large scale; the architect Cass Gilbert, French, and St. Gaudens (who declined the project and championed French)

MELVIN MEMORIAL (1906-08): Thought to be French’s best work, but perhaps for the wrong reasons; the idealized female form and Harriet Anderson; the Civil War, private loss, public memory; a combination of features/elements in great tension

LINCOLN MEMORIAL (1912): The miraculous transcendence; representation of the potential of a heroism off the battlefield, in the seat of justice; the promise of civic virtue. French and Bacon: the use of architecture to compress or modulate the public space and to provide for the viewer the opportunity for an intimate experience with the figure of Lincoln. The collaboration between French and the many hands that made the statue, the miners, the Italian carvers in the Bronx, etc. The unspoken comparison of art to war in the resolution of differences and the power of the artist to imagine, to visualize, social justice in his time. French’s public role: instructor, Arts Students League (NY), trustee, Metropolitan Museum of Art

ANDROMEDA (1929): The coda essential to any comprehensive reassessment of French. As with his Lincoln, French at Chesterwood populates an intimate volume designed by Bacon with his sculptures, both male and female. French and Harriet Anderson, their collaborative idealizing of the female form in a private space; the use of art, by artist and model, to explore relationships of race and gender; the importance of Chesterwood in apprehending French anew

These principal works and initial themes will serve as starting points in our interviews with on-screen talent. In our experience interviews typically stimulate unanticipated information and can lead the narrative in unanticipated directions, a process of exploration that, when we compose the final film, arrests audience attention.

Proposed On Screen Talent

Thayer Tolles: Marica F. Vilcek Curator of American Painting and Sculpture, The American Wing, Metropolitan Museum of Art

David Dearinger: Susan Morse Hilles Curator of Paintings and Sculpture, Boston Athenaeum

Harold Holzer: Lincoln and American Civil War scholar, director, Roosevelt Public Policy Institute, Hunter College

Dan Preston: Editor, Daniel Chester French letters and papers of James Monroe, University of Mary Washington

Donna Hassler: Executive director, Chesterwood Home, Studio, and Gardens

Eve Kahn: Historian and journalist; former columnist, New York Times; advisory board, The Magazine Antiques

Michael Richman: Curator and catalogue author, landmark 1977 Daniel Chester French exhibit, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Justin Davidson: Classical music and architecture critic, New York Magazine; 2002 Pulitzer Prize

Annie Liebovitz: Photographer

Roberta Smith: Co-chief art critic, New York Times

Linda Sweeney: French biographer

William Sherman: Architect and professor, School of Architecture, University of Virginia

Work-plan and Schedule

January-February 2022

Filming and fundraising in DC, NY, and New England

March 2022

Retakes, including fountains closed for winter conditions

March-April 2022

Postproduction, pending fundraising

May 2022

Premier at Chesterwood, in conjunction with national celebration of the restoration and rededication of the Lincoln Memorial

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