IN 1872 the young New Hampshire-born sculptor Daniel Chester French, who had completed only a few small works, was awarded an important commission from the town of Concord, Mass.
The 22-year-old artist’s assignment would be to create a monument honoring the legendary Minute Men who had fought British soldiers at the North Bridge over the Concord River on April 19, 1775.
This encounter was part of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, which started the American Revolution.
The Minute Men were the younger and more capable members of the Massachusetts militia, who could spring into action at a minute’s notice.
In 1836 a granite obelisk commemorating the 1775 battle in Concord had been built on the east bank of the Concord River at the former site of the North Bridge (which had been demolished in 1793).
Ralph Waldo Emerson, the eminent philosopher and poet of Concord, had written a poem for the monument’s dedication on July 4, 1837, entitled the “Concord Hymn.” This line from the poem has become immortal: “Here once the embattled farmers stood and fired the shot heard round the world.”
However, the obelisk had been erected on the opposite side of the river from where that “shot heard round the world” had been fired. The new monument would stand on the spot where the action had actually occurred.
Despite his lack of experience, French had been the only candidate that Emerson and his fellow members of the monument committee had considered. French, who had lived in Concord with his family since 1867, had impressed his neighbors with his talent and work ethic.
Historian Harold Holzer writes in his recent biography, “Monument Man — The Life & Art of Daniel Chester French”: “After winning the commission, even French sheepishly admitted to his brother, ‘Of course, I have never made a statue. I wonder if I can do it?’
“Later he concluded, perhaps half in jest, ‘My admiring friends ignorantly thought I could attack a job of any magnitude, and I was engaged to go ahead.’ ”
French thoroughly researched his subject, including acquiring antique buttons, tri-cornered hats, a musket, a coat, and a powder horn.
His small conceptual model of the monument was accepted by the committee in the fall of 1873.
The Minute Man would be larger than life at 7 feet tall. He would be standing, holding his musket in his right hand, with his left hand on the plow at his feet.
He would look into the distance with an alert expression, appearing ready to run off to war if needed.
The artist completed the full-sized clay model of the statue in a studio he had set up in Boston.
French’s father provided constant encouragement, and his friends and former teachers gave helpful suggestions. A plaster model made from the clay model was shipped to Ames Manufacturing Works in Chicopee, Mass., where the statue was cast from bronze obtained from melting down 10 Civil War-era cannons.
The Minute Man monument and a new bridge at the site of the original were dedicated on April 19, 1875, the 100th anniversary of the famous skirmish.
The day featured a grand parade through Concord and speeches by Emerson and other dignitaries. Sitting in the audience was President Ulysses S. Grant.
The Minute Man was widely praised as a masterpiece, but French was not present to enjoy the accolades.
Polishing his credentials as a professional sculptor required a stint in Europe. French chose to work and study in Florence, Italy, arriving there in November 1874. He set up a modest studio, but was fortunate to soon be invited to work alongside the renowned American sculptor Thomas Ball in his spacious villa. Ball, who worked in a naturalistic style, was much admired for his small sculptures that were reproduced in bronze, including a statue of Daniel Webster, the New Hampshire-born politician and statesman (the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester owns a fine example). Ball was also celebrated for his large public works, including the magnificent equestrian monument of George Washington in the Boston Public Garden (1869).
In New Hampshire today his impressive statue of Daniel Webster commands the plaza in front of the State House (1886).
Next week: From Italy to America, Daniel Chester French’s career takes shape.