Daniel Chester French’s “Chesterwood” in the Berkshires
Whether or not you know it, you are familiar with the work of Daniel Chester French (1850-1931), one of the most acclaimed of America’s sculptors of monuments. His staggeringly successful career spanned two centuries and lasted his lifetime. Have you ever seen the Minuteman statue in Concord, MA? It was French’s first full-sized figure, done when he was 22 years old in 1875. Have you run into the Angel of Peace sculpture in Jamaica Plain’s Forest Hills Cemetery? French did that in 1898 at age 48. And let’s not forget his most famous work – the statue of Abraham Lincoln, in the Lincoln Monument in Washington D.C., which was finished in 1919 (age 69) and installed - all 28 sections of it in Georgia marble – in 1922.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to be born to not insignificant privilege. When he didn’t last past two semesters at MIT and insisted that he much preferred to whittle, he began to study under Louisa May Alcott’s younger sister May Alcott, the talented local artist in his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts. His family also hung out with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, the latter of whom said on seeing the bust French carved of him, “That is the face I share.” Later, in the Berkshires, he was good buddies with Edith Wharton.
Daniel Chester French’s main residence was in New York’s Greenwich Village, where he rented a number of studios. The very large fees he commanded allowed him to buy land in Stockbridge, MA (for $3,000), and build Chesterwood (1896) - http://chesterwood.org/ - as his summer home. Now managed by the National Trust, Chesterwood includes French’s residence, his studio, his formal garden, and the 120 acres of exquisite Berkshire wilderness through which he cut trails for his only daughter Margaret so that she could learn about nature. Tours are given five times a day. Nancy Sheridan, our knowledgeable guide who skillfully shepherded a group of 15 visitors despite the temperature and humidity being in the mid-90s, has been taking visitors around for over 15 years.
The house is relatively modest, for a man of his income and class, but quite formal and situated for exquisite views of the mountains. With nine bedrooms and six bathrooms (which look much like ours today) it was sufficient for entertaining. French had a strong romantic streak: the living room is a replica of his grandparents’ living room – where he spent happy times as a lad – and he even convinced them to give their furniture to him. He lived there with his wife – a first cousin he married when he was 38 – and their only child Margaret, an artist in her own right.
Built and decorated in an eclectic blend of styles, all the estate’s structures were covered with the stucco he had learned to love during his time trolling the museums of Florence, Italy where he spent two years studying under Thomas Ball. That stucco today is disintegrating, not the least in his handsome, north-facing main studio, now closed to the public while the National Trust tries to find the money to repair it.
French’s work can be divided between his commissioned public monuments and the pieces he produced from inspiration. The 1880s-1910s was a period of constructing massive public buildings, and he was invited to produce large sculptures. Not only the best-known pieces above, but also a stunning androgynous figure with elements of the masculine, the feminine, and the animal world called “The Genius of Creation” for the 1915 San Francisco Exposition. Only the model remains, exhibited to our delight at Chesterwood. Equestrian statues of generals (he got another artist to do the horses) and other war memorials were the rage, as were grand entrances – the bronze doors of the Boston Public Library are his.
French commanded astronomical fees. His famous piece Memory (1919) of a reclining nude gazing into the mirror she holds fetched $50,000 (before the income tax law). The Lincoln Memorial brought in $87,000. Both of these pieces were translated into Carrara marble by French’s long-time collaborators, the Italian immigrant carvers, the Piccirilli Brothers. French was known to be generous with artistic partners and of the fee for the Lincoln Memorial, he gave $50,000 to the six brothers.
We also had the pleasure of visiting a special exhibition of contemporary sculptures scattered in interesting places around the grounds. This is the 35th anniversary of these summer shows.
Chesterwood is in a quintessential Berkshire landscape, particularly lush and rich in the summer. It rewards the visitor whose GPS takes them via unpaved roads through the forest that conspire to make this estate a well-kept secret. Just down the road is the Norman Rockwell museum, reviewed here last year, for those hearty enough to venture a double-whammy.
Sue Katz, an author, journalist, blogger and rebel, used to be most proud of her martial arts career and her world travel, but now it’s all about her edgy blog Consenting Adult. Sue is a regular contributor to Open Media Boston.