Some 30,000 gathered that frigid, windy day on April 19th to admire not a stream of indefatigable marathoners, but rather a 7-foot high figure — attired in bronze, not Lycra, and equipped with a musket, not a fanny pack.
The year was 1875, the place the Old North Bridge, and the occasion the culmination of the centenary of the battles of Lexington and Concord. President Ulysses S. Grant, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and a host of other dignitaries appeared before the crowd for the unveiling of the Minute Man statue. Absent was its 25-year-old creator, Daniel Chester French, who was studying art in Florence — and perhaps making himself scarce in case the statue was panned.
“The most amazing thing about the Minute Man was that the guy had never done a [full-length] statue,” said Harold Holzer, author of “Monument Man: The Life and Art of Daniel Chester French,” published last month by Princeton Architectural Press. “It was a do-or-die experience for him.”
Born in Exeter, N.H., in 1850, French eventually settled with his family at a farm in Concord when he was 17. It was there that he had his first studio and spent his young adult years. His first art teacher was May Alcott, Louisa’s youngest sister and the model for the character Amy in “Little Women.”
His previous work had included a bust of his father, Judge Henry Flagg French, and nature-inspired sculpture. “Judge French, Emerson, and the Alcott sisters conspired to make sure there was no competition” for the Minute Man project, Holzer said.
The statue, replicated in miniatures, soon became an American icon, and the image has been used to peddle everything from instant pudding to insurance.
It launched French on a career that led to commissions of Civil War heroes, presidents, poets, and college founders that can be found across the nation and the globe. His ultimate achievement was the Lincoln Memorial.
Both the standing Minute Man and the seated Lincoln reflect French’s trademarks: “naturalism, a great feeling of humanity, and connection to the subject,” Holzer said. “He believed in capturing both the spirit and the physicality of a person in realistic terms.”
The Minute Man depicts a farmer on the alert. “Look at the tension in the legs and the arms and the head,” Holzer said. “He hears something in the distance. He’s ready to abandon the plow and raise up the musket.”
A stickler for authenticity, French put out a call for Colonial-era relics to use as references. “French was a very handsome guy,” Holzer said. “There would be a line of young women outside his studio ready to show him their alleged Colonial artifacts. And he loved girls. He was a flirt up till he was 80.”
The powder horn and coat that served as models for the statue are in the collection of the Concord Museum, as is French’s bust of Emerson. Viewing the nearly completed clay model, the Sage of Concord proclaimed, “That is the face that I shave.”
French had a flair for the symbolic as well, such as the Melvin Memorial at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, which honors three local brothers who died in the Civil War. Its centerpiece is a female figure holding out an oak branch as an award to the victors who didn’t live to receive it. French referred to the figure as “Mourning Victory,” Holzer said, as she at once expresses triumph and laments her dead.
French sculpted models of many of his most famous works at Chesterwood, his summer home and studio in the Berkshires. Holzer, who is best known as a Lincoln scholar, was introduced to the estate in 1971 by a mentor, historian Stefan Lorant, a close friend of French’s daughter, Margaret. Since then, Holzer has returned to Chesterwood dozens of times and was commissioned by its director to write French’s biography to mark the 50th anniversary of the estate as a National Trust Historic Site.
There in Stockbridge, visitors can see the sculpting platform French placed on a railroad flatcar. That allowed him to roll his works outdoors to see them in the full light of day and from different perspectives.
“He would scamper down a hill and look up at what he was doing,” Holzer said.
The biographer marveled at French’s ability to shape his works with their ultimate settings in mind, be it a sculptural relief atop a building or a general on horseback. “He always had the eye,” Holzer said. “He could envision a small work of art successively larger and larger and higher and higher.”
Typically, French would make first clay and then plaster models. For marble works, he often hired the Piccirilli Brothers, who descended from a long line of Italian carvers. They worked out of a studio near present-day Yankee Stadium, where they chiseled the statue destined for the Lincoln Memorial out of 28 blocks of marble.
“If you had looked at Lincoln’s face,” Holzer said, “you would have seen something that might have looked grotesque. When you’re carving something that’s going to be seen from 19 feet below … you have to delineate things very sharply.”
French would frequently visit the studio to check on progress, armed with his own tools for touch-up work. The statue was not fully assembled until it was installed in its temple-like home on the National Mall in December 1919 and January 1920. The building was designed by Henry Bacon, who often collaborated with French.
Ironically, Holzer said, the workers who quarried the marble from Georgia “may have been forced labor from prison, people of color.”
In the prologue to his book, Holzer notes a further irony. The 1922 dedication ceremony of the Lincoln Memorial was strictly segregated, with black people relegated to benches a block away. Robert Russa Moton, the principal of the all-black Tuskegee Institute, was the only African-American invited to speak. Organizers heavily censored his remarks, deleting a section declaring that until all groups enjoyed full civil rights, the memorial would be “but a hollow mockery, a symbol of hypocrisy.”
So far as Holzer knows, French never accepted a commission for a Confederate monument. The historian said he has had conflicted feelings over the current controversy about removing such statues.
Having served 23 years as chief spokesman for New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Holzer said his first instinct was to advocate preserving some statues, but providing historical context. Now, he said, “I’m torn because more and more African-American scholars are sharing the pain of these things that I didn’t perhaps fully appreciate before.” Holzer said perhaps the Hungarians have hit upon the best solution, creating a park in Budapest “of worthy works of art of disgraced people.”
What would French, who died in 1931, say about the furor? “That he believes in putting statues up, not pulling them down,” Holzer surmised.
Steve Maas can be reached at email@example.com.