Friday, January 18, 2013

Daniel Chester French, and His Lincoln

Mark D. Ruffner, from U. S. postage

Several years ago, I visited Chesterwood, the Massachusetts summer home and studio of Daniel Chester French (1850-1931). French is remembered primarily for two great statues he created, the seated Abraham Lincoln that resides within the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concord Minuteman, shown below.

examiner.com

mass.historicbuildingsct.com

French's house is a handsome structure, approximately two miles west of Stockbridge, and overlooking the Berkshire Hills. Coincidentally, it was designed in 1898 by Henry Bacon, the architect of the Lincoln Memorial.

Chesterwood


Chesterwood

By far, the real attraction at Chesterwood is French's studio, where the famous Lincoln statue was carved. Above, you can see at least three models for it (there's a small model at the foot of the largest one).

The room is essentially an enormous cube, with one side comprised almost entirely doors and skylights.

loc.gov
loc.gov

Now I'd like to turn your attention to the floor directly in front of those huge doors. Because French sculpted so many statues that were placed outside, he needed to see how they would look in natural light. He therefore designed that part of the floor to be a large, wheeled cart that could be rolled out into the sunlight on railroad tracks.

yeodoug.com

This is a photo by Douglas Yeo that shows the same view from the other side. You can read Douglas Yeo's own impression of Chesterwood and see more at Mr. Yeo's site, here.

An interesting problem arose as the Lincoln Memorial was finalized. It had been designed to have skylights, which would have cast shadows downward, as they appeared in French's studio. But the skylights were scrapped, thus allowing light to enter the memorial only horizontally. On top of that, light was also reflected upward from the floor, and so poor Abraham Lincoln looked strangely startled!

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You can imagine that both the sculptor and architect were as surprised as Lincoln appeared to be, and hugely disappointed. Much time and effort was spent correcting the shadows through artificial lighting, so that today President Lincoln appears as that iconic face we all know.

en.wikipedia.org

21 comments:

  1. Hugely interesting, thank you. I did not know about the sculptor. Your post seems very apt, having just watched "Lincoln" with Daniel Day-Lewis, which I thought was marvellous, and I highly recommend.

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    1. Dear Columnist,

      I have also seen Daniel Day-Lewis in "Lincoln" and as an avid reader of Presidential biographies, I have no doubt that there will never be a closer portrayal.

      Much has been made of the fact that Day-Lewis speaks in a high voice, as Lincoln actually did. Those who remembered having heard Lincoln orate said that his voice was initially a little off-putting, but that by humor, eloquence and reasoning that was steadily built upon, he gradually won over audiences.

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  2. Dear Mark,
    A very interesting post. We view statues and judge whether we like them or not. We might be interested to see what they are made of but we very really consider the time and the effort spent in making them appear 'just so'.
    I really enjoyed reading this and do like the look of Mr. French's house. I think I could quite happily live there!
    Kirk

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    1. Dear Kirk,

      It is a handsome house and I would note that it was actually Mr. French's summer home. He also spent time in New York City. I have to confess, though, that I found the studio so interesting and ingenious that I don't remember the interior of the house itself.

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  3. Hello Mark:
    This is all so interesting, especially from this side of the Atlantic. We should have been most intrigued to see French's house, which looks to be most attractive, and in particular his vast cathedral of a studio with its most ingenious method of transporting the works outside to be appraised in natural light.

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    1. Hello Jane and Lance:

      "Ingenious" is indeed the word for French's train track. I heard a similar story of an English artist (whose name now escapes me) who rigged a barber's chair on a track so that he could — by pumping a handle at his side — move back and forth from his easel. I've often remebered that, as I like to view my own projects at different distances and angles.

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  4. Hello Mark, Thats for the tour of the French studio--it is very lucky that it has been preserved intact, to give us a glimpse into the working processes of a sculptor.

    There is no question that the lighting of sculptures is essential, and different from that of paintings. The Djedefra statue head that I recently mentioned was like that; so many photos are unappealing, but when I saw it at the correct angle, and intelligently lighted, the portrait really came to life.

    In the Small World department, I at first couldn't place the familiar name Douglas Yeo, but as soon as I clicked over to his site, I realized that he is the famous trombonist, who also specializes in historic low brass instruments such as the serpent and ophicleide.
    --Road to Parnassus

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    1. Hello, Jim,

      Your comment prompted me to return to images of the Djedfra head, and to look at it in the various ways it's been lit. I notice that under a certain direct lighting, the head's eyeballs appear to look down in a way not particularly regal, though not so ridiculous as Lincoln's original lighting. The Djedfra head is pretty low relief by comparison.

      Douglas Yeo's career has indeed been distinguished.

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  5. To my shame I have to admit to knowing nothing about Daniel Chester French, so I am pleased that you have corrected that situation. Of course I am very familiar with the Lincoln statue, but imagine that I did not know who sculpted it?
    The studio is a wonderful space, how many artists would love a room of their own like that?
    I have been having a look at his sculpture on Wikipedia to acquaint myself with his work, most of which would require that very large studio space.
    Thank you for the introduction Mark.

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    1. Dear Rosemary,

      You are most welcome. I think you're right to guess that the track got a lot of use, regardless the size of each statue. As I look at the seated Lincoln in the memorial, I wonder whether it would have been too big to slide through those doors, and that in turn makes me wonder whether French carved the statue in pieces. I haven't read anything on that.

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  6. The Lincoln sculpture is one of my favorites, Mark. I saw it once years ago and still remember how moved I was. It casts a certain aura. I knew little about its creator either, so thank you for informing me (us) about Daniel Chester French.

    I had seen the photo of French's studio somewhere before, but didn't know about the tracking gizmo. And wow, what a gorgeous house.

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  7. Very cool blog. Interesting posts. ;)
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    1. Thanks for visiting and the nice comment, Patrycja!

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  8. It's been many years since I've visited the Lincoln Memorial. Now I know a bit more about this iconic statue. And what a wonderful studio. I love the exposed beams and soaring ceiling.

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    1. Visiting the Lincoln Memorial is an awesome experience, in the truest sense of that phrase.

      As the studio was a summer workplace, I imagine that it was designed to stay cool, with the "train track doors" usually staying open.

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  9. Dear Mark - I have just heard an interview with Steven Spielberg where he spoke about the Day-Lewis portrayal of Lincoln. He said Day-Lewis became Lincoln whilst on and off the set for the entire period of the filming. Apparently Day-Lewis also ate the same food as Lincoln. He said that he (Spielberg) stopped turning up on the set wearing jeans and sloppy jumper but switched to wearing a tie as he began to feel he was actually in the presence of the 16th President.

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    1. Dear Rosemary,

      I heard a similar interview with the movie's screenwriter. Day-Lewis wrote notes under the name "A. Lincoln," called Sally Fields (Mary Todd Lincoln) "Mother," and very quickly was addressed by everyone on the set as "Mr. President."

      In a separate interview, I discovered that a tolling bell was recorded in the church that Lincoln actually attended, and that even the ticking from Lincoln's watch is recorded from his actual watch.

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  10. Dear Mark,
    I'm so sorry to be late in sending my thanks for this wonderful post! I read it on my phone just after you posted it and have been thinking about it since then... I found the design and views of Mr. French's studio to be absolutely fascinating. I am always intrigued by the virtuosity involved in producing such beautiful sculptures in three dimensions-- I'd thought about the tools and how difficult it must be to see a work evolve from so many perspectives, but I'd never considered the problem of light on deeply carved stone... Can you imagine the stress of it? One plane too deeply carved and there's no going back! It's no wonder French came up with that ingenious track system--with so much at stake, the effort and expense was completely justified. I visit Boston with some regularity-- I shall have to make a detour to Chesterwood this summer... What great timing you have, Mark! With all of the inauguration festivities, I'm sure a view of the Lincoln Memorial will be part of the day tomorrow, and, thanks to you, we'll all have a much deeper appreciation for it.
    Warm regards,
    Erika

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    1. Dear Erika,

      Your comment made me consider how important calipers would be for a sculptor like French, and of course, if you look at his work table in the first view of the studio, there they are!

      I will be taking time out today to watch all the inauguration hoopla . . .

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  11. I loved seeing Mr French's studio.

    Im straining my eyes trying to view the other classically inspired works in the studio, so no doubt will be off to Google.


    Have you a favourite statue Mark? Donatello's David is one of mine

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    1. Dear smr - I would be hard-pressed to name an all-time favorite statue, but certainly Giambologna's "Mercury" would be among my favorites.

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