Daniel Chester French: Sculptor of American History
This Fourth of July holiday weekend, we’re focusing on the sculptor Daniel Chester French. Best known for the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial, French designed public monuments in Washington, D.C., and beyond.
Daniel Chester French (1850-1931) was a high-profile sculptor of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Born in New Hampshire, he was raised in Concord, Massachusetts and studied in the studio of American sculptor Thomas Ball in Florence, Italy. French’s first major commission was The Minute Man (1874). Located on the site of the one of the first battles of the American Revolution, it depicts a minuteman setting aside his farming tools, taking up his gun, and stepping forward into battle.
French’s First Statue of Lincoln
The Lincoln Memorial was not French’s first statue of our 16th president. A few years earlier, he designed a standing statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Nebraska State Capitol. This work is placed in front of a large stone slab known as a stele inscribed with the text of the Gettysburg Address. The stele was designed by Henry Bacon, who also collaborated with French for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The Lincoln Memorial
After his success in Nebraska, French was commissioned in 1914 to create a statue for the Lincoln Memorial, now generally considered his masterpiece. Over 30 feet tall including the figure and the armchair, the sculpture looks down on the viewer with authority. The Lincoln Memorial was inspired by the Parthenon in Athens, Greece, and French’s statue has been compared to the ancient sculptor Phidias’ statue of Zeus from Olympia, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
An Urban Legend
Some people believe that the Lincoln Memorial statue’s hands form the sign language letters for his initials, A and L. In fact, French had a deaf son and had a familiarity with sign language. The National Park Service (NPS), however, calls it an urban legend. Instead, the NPS suggests that Lincoln’s open and closed hands suggest compassion and strength, respectively.
The Dupont Circle Fountain
Though best known for the Lincoln Memorial, French also sculpted a work of art that many DC residents likely pass by all the time without noticing: the fountain in Dupont Circle. This monument honors Rear Admiral Samuel Francis Du Pont, who served in the U.S. Navy during the Mexican-American War and the Civil War. French’s statue includes three figures representing the Sea, the Stars, and the Wind.
In his work, French recounted American history through sculpture. Besides the Lincoln Memorial and Dupont Circle Fountain, French’s other monuments in Washington, D.C. include a statue of Lewis Cass in the U.S. Capitol and statues of Alice Cogswell and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, trailblazers in deaf education, at Gallaudet University. His smaller sculptures and models are on view at the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.