Heroism Preserved in Artwork; Two Sculptors Help Shape Nation's Identity

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 12, 2008 | Go to article overview

Heroism Preserved in Artwork; Two Sculptors Help Shape Nation's Identity


Byline: James A. Percoco, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

New England boasts the workshops of two of America's greatest Lincoln and Civil War monument sculptors, and they are just about 100 miles apart. Chesterwood, the home and studio of Daniel Chester French, sits in a bucolic valley near Stockbridge, Mass., over which the aptly named Monument Mountain, part of the Berkshires range, peers down.

In Cornish, N.H., Aspet, the home and studio of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, is nestled on a hill overlooking the Connecticut River, nature's dividing line between New Hampshire and Vermont.

Each site is preserved and maintained for the public to enjoy; Chesterwood is a property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Saint-Gaudens' estate is a unit of the National Park Service, Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site.

Visitors to these gems of American cultural history will learn how heroic sculpture was created and discover how peace and tranquillity played a role in shaping the lives and works of two men who gave the nation differing but nonetheless equally stirring sculpted portraits of Abraham Lincoln and other heroes of the Civil War.

The beginning

Three-and-a-half miles from quaint Stockbridge, a town brought to life most famously on canvas by Norman Rockwell, who also lived and worked there, one comes upon the place where the gentlemanly French erected his country studio.

There he labored for 35 consecutive summers between mid-May and November, spending the other six months in New York City's Greenwich Village.

He retired to his rural retreat full time later in life. Walking the grounds, it is easy to see why this 120-acre property, a transformed derelict old farm, was near and dear to French and his wife, Mary, his first cousin.

White-tailed deer scamper and frolic, and birds spread their wings above the shaded property while a pleasant breeze playfully tugs at the maples and pines, through which meander paths for leisurely strolling.

French initially wanted to be an engineer, but after flunking out at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he returned to the village of Concord, Mass., where he learned to sculpt under the direction of Abigail May Alcott, sister of author Louisa May Alcott. Legend has it that he first tried his hand at sculpting turnips, impressing Alcott.

With little formal academic training, the 25-year-old French, by 1875, created an American icon, "The Minute Man" statue. Dedicated in Concord near the battleground on the centennial of the "shot heard round the world," which in part touched off the War for Independence, the sculpture drew wide acclaim, securing French's place in the pantheon of American artists and launching a long, productive and very successful career.

Facing south

In 1898, French's architect friend and collaborator Henry Bacon designed for him the studio that stands today adjacent to a matching stucco and green-shuttered house, also designed by Bacon. Here French could entertain as well as discuss business with the high-voltage clients who came to him offering a number of public and private commissions.

Everything in the house is original, dating to 1931, the year French died. It reflects an elegantly simple home of an upscale New England family with an accent on the 1850s.

French had his home placed on an axis facing south because of his deep love for Italy. After his successful completion of "The Minute Man," French traveled to Florence to study and was enraptured by the Tuscan mountainside. Looking at Monument Mountain from the back porches of his home and studio gave him great satisfaction.

We owe the preservation of Chesterwood to French's daughter, Margaret, who bequeathed the property in her will to the National Trust. Additionally, she spent much of her lifetime searching for his working plaster models and bringing the 500 that she found to Chesterwood.

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