Donna Hassler is executive director of Chesterwood, the former summer home and studio of Daniel Chester French (1850–1931), a renowned and prolific American sculptor of public monuments best known for the sculpture of Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial. Located in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Chesterwood is a historic site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded nonprofit. I recently spoke with Hassler about French’s life and work, Chesterwood, and the value of public art. —Joseph Kellard
Joseph Kellard: Donna, thank you for taking time to speak with me about this great sculptor. I love the works of Daniel Chester French, and I’ve photographed many of them, so it’s a real treat for me to chat about him and his work with such an expert on the subject.
Donna Hassler: You’re welcome.
JK: French was quite prolific, producing more than one hundred monuments, memorials and other works. What would you say are some of the distinctive features and themes of his art?
DH: Daniel Chester French was an American Beaux-Arts sculptor. Trained in Florence and later Paris, he was inspired by the ideal beauty of Greco-Roman art and architecture early in his career. In fact, he didn’t even stay around for the unveiling of the Minute Man sculpture in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1874, because he had accepted an invitation from Ned Powers, the son of the prominent American neoclassical sculptor Hiram Powers, to stay with his family in Florence and study sculpture with another American artist, Thomas Ball. The artist looked to nature in modeling his figurative works but improved upon her in the classical tradition. Allegory and symbolism also played a more important role in his sculpture, especially when he memorialized individuals without portraying them in a realistic manner.
JK: French’s most celebrated sculptures are Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial and The Minuteman in Concord, Massachusetts; many of our readers have seen and enjoyed these. Which of his lesser-known works do you think deserve special attention, and why? . . .