When Daniel Chester French was 9 years old, his family moved from Exeter, N.H., to Cambridge, Mass. The youngest of four siblings, French had been born in Exeter in 1850, where his father Henry Flagg French practiced law. His mother Anne had died when he was 6 years old, and now the family was starting a new life, with his father newly married to Pamela Mellen Prentiss and opening a new law office in Boston.
Daniel Chester French received his early education in the local schoolhouses, and learned a great deal about birds and their habits through his close friendship with a boy his age in Cambridge, William Brewster. Brewster loved studying birds, and he motivated French to keep a detailed log of the birds he spotted. When they were young teenagers, the duo hunted for examples of different bird species in the local woods. The boys stuffed and mounted dead birds for Brewster’s study collection, which he kept in his family’s home on Brattle Street. In later life Brewster went on to become one of the foremost ornithologists of his time, and he certainly inspired French to become a close observer of nature, a skill which would serve him well in his career as an artist.
From 1864 to 1866 the Frenches lived in Amherst, Mass. while Henry French served as the first president of the Massachusetts Agricultural College (now the University of Massachusetts Amherst). Concord, Mass. became the family’s home in 1867 when Henry French purchased a working farm. While living in Concord, Daniel French helped his father with the chores, and he also began experimenting with sculpture. He modeled animal and human figures in clay, and also carved shapes in wood and other materials. As he took to this activity so naturally, Henry began to think that perhaps Daniel should not pursue a career in the law, which had been the family’s hope. Instead, Henry encouraged his son to develop his art skills.
Daniel French’s first art teacher was a neighbor in Concord, Abigail May Alcott. May, as she was known, was the youngest of the four daughters of the social activist Abigail “Abba” Alcott and Amos Bronson Alcott, the renowned Transcendentalist philosopher, educator, and reformer. May’s sister Louisa May Alcott was an accomplished writer who was working on “Little Women,” a novel based on her family life. It would be published in 1868, and would bring her immortality. May was the model for the character of Amy in “Little Women,” and Orchard House in Concord, the Alcott’s home, is described in detail in the book.
May Alcott was a gifted painter who had studied at the school of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Daniel learned a great deal from her about the basics of sculpture, including how to keep the clay moist for modeling, and how to use calipers for taking measurements. May gave Daniel a carving tool to use which he treasured for the rest of his life.
Henry wanted Daniel to also receive a formal education in math, languages, and the sciences, so he sent his son to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Daniel failed miserably, and did not return after his freshman year. Instead of pursuing college, he studied under a succession of artists and teachers. In 1870 he apprenticed in the studio of sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward in New York City. In 1871 he studied anatomy under William Rimmer, an English-born artist, physician, and teacher who was living in the Boston area. And, later Daniel trained under the Boston luminary William Morris Hunt, an extremely successful painter, lithographer, and sculptor.
While living in Concord, Henry French continued to practice law in Boston, which was easily accessible by train. The French family also spent some of their time in Washington, D.C. visiting with the several members of the family who had moved there, including Henry’s youngest brother, Edmund French, and his older half-brother Benjamin Brown French. Beginning in 1876 when he was appointed as a U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, Henry began to spend more time in Washington. He served in this position until 1885, the year he died at his Concord home at the age of 72.