French Connection: New Concord Museum Exhibit Explores Life and Work of Daniel Chester French

Posted on: November 14th, 2013 by Katherine Flynn

Daniel Chester French was born in 1850 and was hailed as the “Dean of American Sculpture” during his lifetime. One of his first works was a bust of prominent Concord intellectual Ralph Waldo Emerson, cast here in bronze. (He also completed plaster and marble casts.) Credit: Concord Museum
Daniel Chester French was born in 1850 and was hailed as the “Dean of American Sculpture” during his lifetime. One of his first works was a bust of prominent Concord intellectual Ralph Waldo Emerson, cast here in bronze.

“All over the landscape, but kind of invisible.” That’s how Concord Museum curator David Wood describes sculptor Daniel Chester French, possibly the most famous artist you may never have heard of.

French, who dedicated his career to turning the likenesses of American icons into works of public art, is the subject of an ongoing exhibit at the Concord Museum in Concord, Mass., titled From the Minute Man to the Lincoln Memorial: The Timeless Sculpture of Daniel Chester French.

With special focus on the two sculptures that bookended -- and defined -- his career, the exhibit incorporates items from French’s Chesterwood studio in Stockbridge, Mass. (a site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation) and the studio in Concord that he worked out of in his earlier years. It aims to not only shed light on French’s body of work but also place him in the larger context of the intellectual and artistic landscape of New England in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

“The extent to which French was influenced by this community and was a real creature of Concord for many years -- I didn’t even know that,” says Wood. “I didn’t know how integrated into that community he was.”

As a result, one of French’s early subjects was writer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, who, upon seeing his likeness as cast in a bust by French, remarked, “That is the face that I shave.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Concord home, one of the sites on the Daniel Chester French trail. Credit: Pablo Sanchez, Flickr
Ralph Waldo Emerson's Concord home, one of the sites on the Daniel Chester French trail.

The exhibit includes plaster, marble and bronze versions of the sculpture, as well as period furniture from French’s Concord studio set up in a partial recreation (including a bed that French made himself). Visitors can also see plaster casts that French made of his own hands for use in the Lincoln Memorial sculpture, as well as a smaller-scale bronze version of the work and French’s tools for sculpting.

To enhance the exhibit and give visitors an even deeper connection to French’s legacy in the city, the museum also compiled a guide to the Daniel Chester French Trail, a series of sites within easy walking or driving distance of each other that characterize French’s life and work in Concord. Sites include Ralph Waldo Emerson’s home, the home of Little Women author Louisa May Alcott (whose sister was one of French’s first art teachers), and the North Bridge and Minute Man National Historical Park, home of French’s iconic Minute Man statue (commissioned when he was just 21).

As Susan Foster, the museum’s director of education, explains it, “We want our visitors to walk around town, drive around town, see other things. They might go to the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery and see French's sculpture there -- his burial plot is there as well."

"Really, it's not about what they learn at each site," she says. "Its about understanding Daniel Chester French in a larger context in Concord."

The exhibit is presented in collaboration with Chesterwood and runs through March 23, 2014. For information about the museum's rates and hours, check their website.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Katherine Flynn

Katherine Flynn

Katherine Flynn is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores and uncovering the stories behind historic places. Follow her on Twitter at @kateallthetime.

Travel