Updated: Jul 3, 2022
During the last several months I had the opportunity to walk on the shoes of Daniel Chester French, the famed sculptor of the Lincoln Memorial. The experience left me wondering about the idea that I alone had to adapt to mind-blowing circumstances and revolutionary changes, after all I was born before artificial satellites, color television, internet, cellular phones, and genetic engineering. If I stop to think how these and many other changes and transformations have affected the glass through which I see the world I would probably better understand how my films have changed over the years. When it comes to Daniel Chester French I wanted to do just that, to get under the skin of the artist and explore the period.
Daniel Chester French was born in April of 1850, eleven years after Joseph Saxton produced the first known daguerreotype in the United States, and he died in October of 1931 four years after the release of the The Jazz Singer, the first attempt to include sound on film. The following year Warner Brothers introduced the first all-talking feature film, Lights of New York, directed by Bryan Foy.
The evolution of lighting and sound on film and photography must have been of major interest for someone like Daniel French always consumed by a permanent concern of incidence of light on his works of public art, always exposed to the elements and the changing conditions. It occurs to me that artificial lighting will play a considerable role for a neoclassical sculpture working in a period in which works of public art were being illuminated at night beyond the scope of what the creator could have envisioned. And other critical point is the speed at which people are now starting to move through the urban landscape on motorized transportation. We certainly stopped looking at public art with that certain regard that characterized the period in which they flourished and gained well deserved attention. The lighting factor will take center stage during the final touches to the Lincoln Memorial when, displeased with the results of natural light on the face of his subject, French will find remedy in artificial lighting which remains in place, throughout day and night, as a key element in the composition of the Lincoln Memorial and it has for the last one-hundred years.
Fundamental changes during his lifetime were not limited to the visual arts. From the moment of his move to Manhattan, following a brief sojourn in Italy, French lived through a unique chapter in the evolution of transportation. New Yorkers, accustomed to get around on carriages pulled by horses, and horses driven by riders, were now adopting the automobile as a main form of conveyance. The transition forced stable owners to sell, and men and women of imagination to adapt the space to suite the need of modern artists, painters, and sculptors alike. Such was the case of several properties behind the row of brownstone buildings on Eight Street, west of Fifth Avenue. At least three of these properties were purchased by French and converted. His next-door neighbor was Gertrude Whitney which shortly before French’s death in 1931 will inaugurate the Whitney Museum of American Art, precisely in the spaces where they once shared a common passion. The Village remains a Bohemian hub, and in great measure we owe this characteristic to the fact that French lived through, and adapted to, the demands of his time.
Another aspect that illustrates the challenges in French’s time in that which concerns to the relationship between architecture and sculpture. During the last months of his life, French had the opportunity to see the completion and the inauguration of the Chrysler Building and Empire State Building, propositions that would directly affect the way in which sculptors and architects had been working together since the early 1890s in what would become known as the City Beautiful movement. From now on, buildings will progressively evolve into fine sculptural works of art rendering obsolete the prevailing aesthetic concept of the Gilded Age where buildings and sculptures lived side by side but not necessarily as one.
And I’m sure the reader can think of many other transformative experiences in the lifetime of Daniel Chester French without resorting to the obvious events of May 21, 1927 when Charles A. Lindbergh completed the first solo, nonstop transatlantic flight from Long Island to Paris; and the trenches of Verdun, and the electrification of major cities in America, and the fact that he had come to age during the Civil War and that his innocence was probably shattered by the news of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln whose likeness he was call to render in more than one occasion, most famously, as the seating Solomon overlooking the stage from which Marian Anderson and Martin Luther King Jr. will sing to the nation the winds of greater changes yet to come.
Daniel Chester French last formidable work was the center piece at the Lincoln Memorial, while he continued to work on his more private, more personal rendition of Andromeda at Chesterwood. Walking on his shoes and trying to understand how the times he endured contributed to the remarkable evolution of his work, has been instrumental in the making of a documentary film, not only faithful to the work, but faire to the man behind his monuments.