FOR THE New Hampshire-born sculptor Daniel Chester French, 1888 was a year of personal fulfillment. He and his cousin Mamie French were married that year, and they started their life together in New York City. With a new spacious studio in the city, French, now an established artist at age 38, was able to put all of his various projects into order. This included the model for the Gallaudet Memorial, which would be dedicated in June 1889 in Washington, D.C. He would receive great acclaim for this naturalistic portrayal of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, the admired early teacher of deaf persons and Alice Cosgrove, the little girl who was his first sign-language student.
In the years that followed, French would receive commissions to produce portrait statuary, both full-length figures and busts. Most of these works were designed to stand in public squares, or to be installed in cemeteries. No matter what the project, French conducted meticulous research on his subject. He used this knowledge as a starting point to inspire his creative imagination. In developing his concepts, he animated his depictions of the physical form with emotion, which would be expressed in the subjects’ features and stance. This combination of elements would reveal to the viewer something of the subjects’ personalities. Many of French’s statues were displayed in dignified architectural settings that added to the dramatic impact of the works.
For some of his memorial pieces, French sculpted beautiful and enigmatic female figures draped in flowing fabric, reminiscent of Greek or Roman statues. Most of these figures had wings. Their purpose was to signify certain transcendent concepts. Among these were the Angel of Peace, the Angel of Death, the Spirit of Life, and the Angel of the Waters. French also created several equestrian monuments, partnering with Edward Clark Potter, who specialized in modeling the horses. These included statues honoring Civil War generals Ulysses S. Grant (in Philadelphia) and Joseph Hooker (in Boston), and a grand monument depicting George Washington for the city of Paris.
French and Mamie spent the summers of 1891 and 1893 in Cornish, N.H., where they became immersed in the Cornish Colony. This informal group of artists and other creative people had been drawn to Cornish by the presence of the eminent sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens who had established a home and studio there. French treasured the time he spent with Saint-Gaudens, who was both a friend and, though only two years older than French, also a trusted mentor.
The Frenches had been thinking of finding a place in New England to establish a summer home, but this town on the Connecticut River was too far away from New York City. In 1894 and 1895 they rented a small house in the town of Enfield in central Massachusetts, but did not find the location agreeable. In 1896 the couple bought a 150-acre farm in Stockbridge, Mass., in the Berkshire Mountains. Coincidentally, the farmland included a magnificent view of nearby Monument Mountain. This resort town in the western part of the state was within easy travel distance from New York.
Beginning in 1897 the Frenches refurbished the farmhouse and improved the land. They named their summer estate Chesterwood in honor of French’s ancestral village of Chester, N.H. French hired the talented architect Henry Bacon to design a modern sunlit sculpture studio on the property, which was completed in 1898. In 1901, the Frenches and their 12-year-old daughter, Margaret, moved out of the farmhouse and into their new home — a colonial-style house, also designed by Bacon.
Historian Harold Holzer writes in his recent biography, “Monument Man — The Life & Art of Daniel Chester French”: “For the rest of his life, French looked forward to his yearly escapes to the country, and would grow increasingly reluctant to leave Chesterwood and return to Manhattan each November. ... When asked many years later whether he now lived in the country full time, it is little wonder that French replied, ‘I spend six months of the year up there. That is heaven; New York is — well, New York.’”
Today Chesterwood is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It is open to the public from May through October.