A perfect marriage of sculptor and subject

The biography 'Monument Man' shows how Daniel Chester French  stepped away from classical sculpture to create a more realistic portrait in marble of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

Monument Man: The Life & Art of Daniel Chester French by Harold Holzer, Princeton Architectural Press, 368 pp.

It’s a conundrum: the most instantly recognizable sculpture by an American – the colossal marble “Abraham Lincoln” reigning over the Lincoln Memorial in Washington – was created by an artist few people can name. Harold Holzer’s Monument Man: The Life and Art of Daniel Chester French aims to correct this art history deficit. French, who lived from 1850-1931, was famously taciturn in public, so no previous full-fledged biography of him existed. Holzer writes that French was “a man of many accomplishments but few words.” In terms of monuments, however, French was indeed eloquent.

As Holzer says, speaking of French’s crowning masterpiece, the sculpture of Lincoln, “The artist, the subject, and the hour had met.” The same might be said of Holzer. In undertaking this biography, which is augmented by photographs, Holzer combines his expertise in history and art. A recipient of the National Humanities Medal, the biographer is an authority on Lincoln and Civil War history, in addition to his 23 years as head of external affairs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Holzer’s scholarship is impeccable. He screened microfilm to track down newspaper accounts, visited historical societies, and scoured family papers for facts and anecdotes. Fortunately, French left letters and journals that provide insight into his life, loves, thoughts, and work.

The biography traces French’s evolution from a 16-year-old in Concord, Mass., where he carved turnips with a jackknife, to his acclaim as America’s foremost sculptor of Civil War-era monuments. He got off to a fast start, sculpting the seven-foot-tall, bronze “Minute Man” unveiled in Concord in 1875 when French was 25. His next major work was a bust of his neighbor, the 76-year-old Ralph Waldo Emerson. French captured not only the philosopher’s gaze but also his physiognomy, spurring Emerson to admit: “That is the face that I shave.”

French’s ascent was steady, as he combined allegorical figures (winged goddesses were a specialty) with naturalistic portraiture. Holzer discusses well-known works like the statue of Harvard University’s founder “John Harvard” (1883-4), “Alma Mater” (1900-1903) at Columbia University, and the moving Milmore Memorial (1889-93) in Boston’s Forest Hills cemetery.

To understand French’s contributions, background on how the Neoclassic style dominated before 1850 would have provided context. Until he came along, commissions for memorials to American heroes went to foreign artists like Jean-Antoine Houdon. (Houdon’s first bust of George Washington draped him in a toga as if he’d just stepped out of the Roman Forum, but Washington insisted on a military uniform in the full-length statue.) 

French discarded this classicized, idealized approach. He fused naturalism with emotive, poetic treatment, creating realistic portraits that were symbols of something larger than life. It’s this quality that distinguishes his greatest work, “Abraham Lincoln” (1911-22), an awe-inspiring culmination of French’s talent and ambition.

The book lands at a timely moment of debate about Civil War monuments, prompting thought about what makes one monument grand, while others become roosts for pigeons. Certainly the scale of “Lincoln,” created from 6,000 cubic feet of Georgia marble, makes it impressive. The seated figure is 19 feet high on an 11-foot plinth. The setting, in a columned temple modeled on the Parthenon by its architect Henry Bacon, enhances the statue’s grandeur. 

Yet the sculpture’s position as a symbol of national values and a repository of collective memory accounts for its power. The Lincoln Memorial was the site of Marian Anderson’s concert in 1939, after the African American singer was rejected by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech used the setting to underline his message.

Holzer explains how the sculpture’s form makes it a masterpiece as much as “the mystic chords of memory” inspired by Lincoln’s leadership in a time of crisis. The figure’s expressive hands show strength and determination. His steely yet sorrowful stare – so unlike the far-off gaze of classical statues – conveys dignity and humanity. This integration of the real and ideal marks French’s ultimate triumph. “If I am articulate at all,” the sculptor said, “it is in my images.” The biography beautifully supplies the words to go along with those images.

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