When Daniel Chester French came to Stockbridge in 1896, he was 46 years old. His reputation was solid; it had been instantaneous with the unveiling of "The Minute Man" in his hometown, Concord, in 1875. Of his eventual 200 sculptures, comprising some 400 figures, about 60 were behind him.
Now he was in search of a summer workshop a little nearer to his New York City studio. The Marshall Warner farm in Glendale with its intimate view of Monument Mountain seemed perfect. After all, monuments were his business, though he could hardly know that the greatest were yet to come while this natural, white-marble monument peeked in at his studio window.
In 1910 he was commissioned to do a Lincoln statue to be placed before the Statehouse in Lincoln, Neb. For that purpose, he built a special little studio among the meadow daisies below Chesterwood. After much study of all the pictorial and written material he could collect, he settled on a standing Lincoln, hands clasped, head bowed in thought.
He worked on it for two summers before it was rolled out into the sunshine for approval. His wife wrote, "We gave a tea in its honor, and people came, as they always come to see Lincoln anywhere, from all over the country. I remember how picturesque it was, on a perfectly beautiful afternoon, to see the groups of people, women in bright clothes, wandering down across the field to see ‘Lincoln's Shrine,' as they called it."
Today, an 8-foot replica of that noble bronze statue stands, sometimes with snowy cap and mantle, against the dark trees of Chesterwood that is now and forever a national shrine. Yet this work, for all its Gettysburg greatness, was but preamble.
The challenge of a lifetime came a few years later. In 1911 Congress had appropriated nearly $3 million for a site, a building and a statue for a Lincoln memorial. The experienced Henry Bacon was chosen building architect; and finally, on his recommendation, Daniel French was named sculptor. The two had been friends and collaborators for years.
French renewed his study of Lincoln. He took casts of the hands and life mask at the Smithsonian. He pored over the Brady and Gardner photographs. He devoured Lincolniana. He poured himself into the character until the molder became the mold. Then, about Lincoln's birthday in 1915, with hope and trepidation, he put his fingers to the clay seeking the president, the statesman, the preserver of the union.
It was a long task involving preliminary small, sketch-models, 3-foot models, 8-foot models, and the plaster casting of each, uncounted trips to Washington, trials of giant solar prints in situ, and ultimately the realization as the building progressed that the final would be a 19-foot statue on an 11-foot pedestal. So integral was the artist with the creation that he cast his own right hand for the desired grip on the arm of the curule chair. Half the work was done at Chesterwood and half at the New York studio since the precise sculptor had evolved a routine of coming to the Berkshires May 15 and departing Nov. 1.
As the supreme Lincoln arose from the Civil War years, so Americans' greatest memorial arose from the World War years. It was dedicated on Memorial Day, 1922, with 200,000 people present, including some who had known Lincoln. Standing against a column, the sculptor overheard his colleague Henry Bacon explaining to friends that French's work could never be taken for anything but American. His was the vision, and he had realized the dream.
Perhaps the tribute that French liked best came from a 5-year-old boy whose mother had taken him into the deserted memorial. Standing in the hallowed light, he pulled at her skirt, saying in a loud whisper: "Mother, shall I take off my hat?" She agreed and turned to admire the frescoes, inscriptions and columns. Presently, she noticed the boy on the pedestal fumbling at the great statue. She lifted him down reprovingly as he explained, "I was only going to climb up in his lap, Mother, he looked so lonely!"
The last time French saw his statue was on a spring night in 1929. Margaret French Cresson tells it this way in her biography, "Journey Into Fame":
"They stood, he and Penn and Mary and Margaret at the foot of those great flights of steps that come down like rushing water. They looked up at the huge white temple, all shimmering in the moonlight, with its backdrop of purple sky and, inside, the pearly light falling on the head and shoulders of the great War President. For a long time none of them spoke. Finally Dan turned to his daughter and very softly said, "I'd like to see what this is going to look like a thousand years from now."
In recent weeks, The Eagle has run periodic samples of the Our Berkshires columns written from 1960 through 1973 by Morgan Bulkeley III, who died last September at the age of 99. This column is from February 12, 1970.