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The Hands That Rock the Nation

Updated: Nov 13, 2021

Preliminary notes on a documentary project about Daniel Chester French

As I slowly drift into a French state of mind, while still devoted to bringing Black Fiddlers to safe harbor, I begin to read between the lines with the help of the available literature and the friends committed to collaborate in the project. Two films can perfectly coexist as part of the production plan. When we need a break from Black Fiddlers, we start picking into the French book of revelations.

Credit Courtesy Chapin Library, Williams College / Gift of the National Trust for Historic Preservation/Chesterwood, Stockbridge, MA
Daniel Chester French with his model of Abraham Lincoln at Chesterwood.

One of the first elements that come to mind, are Abraham Lincoln hands. Hands have always played a paramount role in the interpretation of power, powerful men, and women. I once learned that certain native cultures of the Caribbean and Central America who practiced ritual cannibalism, would feed the hands of the enemy’s chief to their own, in hopes that the power of one will add to that of the victorious. However, we know that’s not what French had in mind when he casted his own hands when he needed to come up with a pair for the 16th president of the United States monumental sculpture.

French’s reasons were practical, French needed the hands in a certain position to fit with the position where he felt they would rest on the chair. Reality, true facts, are often not as entertaining as myths. However, we are free to interpret, if not the intended purpose, the inadvertent consequences, after all, Lincoln’s hands at the Lincoln Memorial, match the artist, and not his. The name of the artists escapes most visitors to Washington, DC. We know the name of the man sitting in the temple, a temple erected to the man credited with unifying the nation. The name of Daniel Chester French is missing from the site of his creation. In most other nations we know the sculptures by the name of their creators: First the artist, then the subject. We know Las Nereidas as the fountain of Lola Mora, for her sculptor, we know The Thinker was made by Rodin, and David by Michelangelo. Still, French’s Lincoln remains almost anonymous although his hands, the hands of the artist and the hands of the subject are the same. I don’t believe French intended this to be a subject of trivia, but the fact remains it is. He was just trying to get it right and, in the process, he put his hands to work.


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