Daniel Chester French was at work in his Massachusetts summer home and studio in 1914, when he was commissioned to sculpt the seated Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. He completed that work here, and visitors to Chesterwood can browse at leisure through his studio, glimpsing into his artistic life as they see his art in the place where one of America’s best-loved images was created.
The studio itself is fascinating, with an ingenious flatcar he devised to move his works outside so he could work by daylight and see how they would look outdoors. Beautiful gardens surround the studio and the house, where visitors get a sense of his family and social life here each summer.
Daniel Chester French was at the very top of his profession as a sculptor in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A native New Englander, he was born in Exeter, New Hampshire in 1850 and completed his first bust when he was 19 years old.
French’s career as a sculptor began when the artist Abigail May Alcott, younger sister of author Louisa May Alcott, discovered him carving in wood and recognized his skill. She gave him clay to work with, and tools, and soon he was sculpting busts and reliefs, and later a series of figurines that earned him the money for formal art studies in the United States and in Paris.
In 1873, at the age of 23, he was commissioned to create the Minuteman statue that stands at the end of Old North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts, to commemorate the centennial of the Battle of Concord in the Revolution. Unveiled in 1875, the powerful bronze statue was immediately hailed as a masterpiece by critics and the public.
His career was well launched and in 1878 he was awarded contracts for sculpture on the Post Office in Boston, the U.S. Courthouse and Post Office in Philadelphia and the Customs House in Saint Louis. In 1883 he created the sculpture of John Harvard in the Harvard Yard in Cambridge.
French’s home and studio were in New York, but by the 1890s he wanted a more peaceful and inspiring place to work in the summer, so in the fall of 1895 he and his wife traveled into the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, where they found the fashionable resort town of Stockbridge. The following year, French bought a farm in nearby Glendale with a view of Monument Mountain; the family moved there for the summer of 1897.
French used the barn as his studio and the family, with two maids, lived in the farmhouse. The barn soon proved inadequate, so French asked his friend, classical architect Henry Bacon, to design a new one. By the summer of 1900, the farmhouse also proved too small and Bacon designed a new summer home to replace it – the home you can tour today at Chesterwood.
As his work continued to draw attention and new commissions, French added the Lower Studio, a bright and spacious place with room for his largest works. French himself designed the formal gardens and landscapes that surround the house, creating an even more inspiring setting for his work. Western Massachusetts in the late nineteenth century was still a very rural place, one where an artist could settle in and concentrate on his work. Chesterwood would be his summer home and workplace for 35 years, a place he referred to as “heaven.”
It was while he was working at Chesterwood in 1914 that he received the commission for and completed the work on the seated Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. This was not the first Lincoln he had created. In 1909 he had been commissioned to create the standing Lincoln to stand in front of the Statehouse in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Over the course of his career, which spanned the late 19th and early 20th centuries, French created more than 100 public sculptures and countless smaller works, many of them at Chesterwood.
A visit here is not only a look into the personal life of a great sculptor, but a glimpse into his artistic life as you see his art in the place where it was created.
Among the works displayed in the studio are the original plaster model for the Standing Lincoln and a pair of plaster panels that he created for the Francis Parkman Memorial in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. The plaster studies for both figures are at Chesterwood, along with hundreds of his preliminary models. These and final works in marble and bronze are shown in his studio and two other galleries.
The design of the studio itself is unique, with a soaring roof and a huge door to accommodate the rail tracks on which the artist could move larger works outdoors for different perspectives and natural light. Outside the studio, French’s gardens are themselves works of art.
Visiting the gardens and woodlands of Chesterwood, visitors have the sense that this great sculptor could have had an equally successful career as a landscape garden architect. French designed the gardens himself, taking an active part in their cultivation. The gardens blend the New England landscape with the classical forms of European gardens, and the effect is superb.
The formal gardens adjacent to the studio include perennial borders filled with dramatic delphinium, hollyhocks and phlox, and a series of garden rooms that incorporate natural features into the more formal elements. These “rooms” were designed for the family’s use and social activities, which included costumed balls and classical live tableaux, which were popular among the wealthy artist set at the time.
A vine-covered pergola with a bench designed by French is a resting place to admire views of the surrounding Berkshire Hills. A dramatic grand allée bordered in peonies and hydrangeas leads to the Woodland Walk, which French created as window into Chesterwood’s natural setting, highlighting the region’s wild beauty. Paths lead to a variety of vistas and natural features, including a view of the Berkshires from a 1200-foot height.
Chesterwood is only one of several artists homes and studios open to visitors in the Berkshires region: the Frelinghuysen Morris House and the Norman Rockwell Museum and Studio are both nearby, along with homes of well-known authors Edith Wharton and Herman Melville.
Stockbridge is a lively town and a favorite summer retreat for more than a century and a half. Art lovers will find galleries to browse, perhaps the most remarkable of which is Schantz Galleries on Elm Street. Representing some of the world’s finest contemporary artists in all glass techniques, the gallery exhibits works by Dale Chihuly and by other internationally known glass artists in a stunning exhibit space that make the small gallery into a glass museum.
Next to the brick Old Town Hall, The Mews is a tiny alley of small shops and the cozy restaurant, Once Upon a Table, where a specialty is escargot pot pie. For fine dining by candlelight, travel to nearby New Marlborough, where the Old Inn on The Green is a colonial-era inn dating from the 1760s. It is a good base for exploring the Berkshires and its many artists’ and writers’ homes.
By Barbara Radcliffe Rogers and Stillman Rogers
Barbara Radcliffe Rogers
Europe Correspondent, Planetware
Luxury Travel Editor, BellaOnline
Features, Global Traveler Magazine
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