The Lincoln Memorial was the work of a New Englander with connections to the right people. That’s not to say Daniel Chester French wasn’t a great sculptor–or that his powerful and sensitive Lincoln Memorial isn’t one of the greatest sculptures in America. But it is fitting for Washington’s most beloved monument to owe its existence to a skillful networker.
Daniel Chester French was born in 1850 in Exeter, N.H., the scion of an old and well-to-do New England family. His father, Henry Flagg French, a lawyer, served as a judge and, later, assistant U.S. Treasury Secretary. He also pursued horticulture, wrote a book about farm drainage and served as the first president of the Massachusetts Agricultural College (now University of Massachusetts) at Amherst.
In 1867, Henry Flagg French moved his family to Concord, Mass., where he befriended two neighbors: philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson and writer Louisa May Alcott. Young Daniel didn’t care for school, preferring to explore the outdoors with his good friend William Brewster, later a famed ornithologist. He liked to make figures of animals from wood, gypsum and even turnips.
Another neighbor, May Alcott, Louisa’s sister, was an artist as well as the model for Amy in Little Women. She encouraged Daniel to keep at it and gave him drawing lessons, modeling clay and sculptor’s tools.
The Minute Man
With the help of family friends such as Alcott and Emerson, French hit on the right career path. He dropped out of MIT after a year, having flunked algebra, chemistry and physics. Then he moved to New York to study with two famous artists, John Quincy Adams Ward and William Rimmer. But he didn’t like city life and returned home to Concord at age 20.
He arrived just in time. A committee had formed to commission a statue of a Minute Man to commemorate the centennial of the Battle of Concord and Lexington. The committee gave French the commission in 1873. But instead of paying him a fee, the committee would reimburse for his studio, tools and materials.
His neighbors supplied him with antique Minute Man clothing and a Colonial musket, powder horn and plow. The statue was instantly popular. It still stands today by the Old North Bridge where 500 militiamen defeated three companies of British troops.
Helped by his father’s position at the Treasury, French received commissions for works on government buildings over the next 14 years. His career got a jump start in 1893 when he sculpted the giant Statue of the Republic for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. He worked on preparations for the Exposition with architect Henry Bacon of McKim, Mead & White, one of the preeminent firms of the day.
French and Bacon formed a lifelong friendship and partnered in a number of artistic endeavors. When French and his wife Mary bought an 80-acre farm in Stockbridge, Bacon who designed a new studio, house and garage. The Frenches also landscaped formal gardens and added a tennis court, calling the estate Chesterwood, after the New Hampshire town where French’s grandparents lived. You can visit Chesterwood today.
Bacon was also chosen to design the neoclassical temple that would contain a large sculpture of Abraham Lincoln. He, in turn, chose Daniel Chester French to sculpt that statue.
The Lincoln Memorial
Construction of the Lincoln Memorial Building had already started when French went to Washington to work out the plans for the sculpture. He and Bacon decided on a height of 19 feet. They also decided Lincoln should sit — otherwise people couldn’t see his face.
Beginning in 1915, French made large plaster models of the statue, using Matthew Brady photos for reference. He also used a life mask of Lincoln by Leonard Volk. He aimed, he said, “to convey the mental and physical strength of the great President and his confidence in his ability to carry the thing through to a successful finish.”
By 1918 it was time to start work on the real thing. French chose renowned marble cutters, the Piccirilli Brothers, to sculpt the statue in their New York studio. For two years, the Piccirilli brothers worked from French’s model to carve 28 blocks of marble quarried from Georgia. French helped out, hammering and chiseling his own touches onto the stone. Finally in December 1920, the blocks of marble were ready to be shipped to Washington to be assembled.
The silent, brooding Lincoln who presides over the banks of the Potomac has perhaps become more than French dared hope: a shrine to the ideal of tolerance and reconciliation. Marian Anderson sang “God Bless America” in front of it in 1939 after the Daughters of the American Revolution forbade her to sing at Constitution Hall because of the color of her skin. Martin Luther King, Jr., chose to deliver his “I Have A Dream” speech there in 1968. It is the place where millions of tourists come every year to connect with a sacred icon of their own history.
On Memorial Day in 1922, Robert Todd Lincoln, the president’s only surviving son, attended the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial. At 78, he needed help to climb the steps to his place of honor at the base of the statue. William Taft, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and President Warren G. Harding joined him.
Taft, who headed the commission to build the Lincoln Memorial, presented it to President Warren G. Harding, who accepted it on behalf of the American people. Fifty thousand people attended the ceremony.
In 1929, the 79-year-old Daniel Chester French and his daughter Margaret French Cresson visited the memorial. He said to her, “Margaret, I’d like to see what this will look like a thousand years from now.” One can only wonder what he would have thought if he could have seen it just 94 years later.
Some of French’s works around New England include
- The statue of General Joseph Hooker in front of the Massachusetts Statehouse
- The Concord Minuteman, Concord, Mass.
- The St. Paul’s School War Memorial, St. Paul’s School, Concord, N.H.
- Commodore George H. Perkins monument at the New Hampshire State House
- The Melvin Memorial, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Mass.
- The Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Memorial, Cambridge, Mass.
- Wendell Phillips in the Boston Public Garden
- Head of Victory, Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, Mass.
- The George Robert White Memorial, Boston, Mass.
- The John Harvard Monument, Harvard Yard, Cambridge, Mass.
- The Spirit of Life, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Stockbridge, Mass.
- “Public Drinking Fountain” (“Chief Konkapot”),the Town Park Village Green in Lee, Massachusetts.
This story was updated inn 2022. Thanks to two books for this post, So Fine a Prospect: Historic New England Gardens by Alan Emmet and No Better Hope by Brent Ashabranner.
Image of Lincoln Memorial (color): By Jeff Kubina – Lincoln Memorial, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3497205.