The Rock Star of Stockbridge: Daniel Chester French
By Dan Shaw
Although sculptor Daniel Chester French is less well-known than his Berkshires neighbors Edith Wharton and Norman Rockwell, he was as influential as they were and more of a rock star. After all, French often worked in stone, most famously when he designed the iconic 19-foot-high statue (carved from 28 pieces of Georgia marble) of the 16th President of the United States for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. “He is as much an American icon as the writer and the painter, but sculptors rarely become household names,” says Donna Hassler, executive director of Chesterwood, the 122-acre Stockbridge estate where French lived and worked in the summers from 1898 until his death at age 81 in 1931. “People lived with Wharton on their bookshelves and Rockwell on their coffee tables. But public sculpture is not part of most people’s everyday lives.”
However, French’s everyday life is on view at Chesterwood, and this weekend his storied studio — which includes the original 1/7th scale maquette for the Lincoln Memorial — re-opens after an extensive, historically accurate rehabilitation. “The building is now very much the way it looked when it was brand new in 1908, but we’ve corrected for the flaws in the original lathe,” says Gerry Blache, the superintendent of the property who has worked at Chesterwood for 35 years. Designed by architect Henry Bacon (who also designed the Lincoln Memorial), the stucco studio building has the aura of an Italian villa. The main studio is a perfect cube — 30’ x 30’ x 30’ — with a primary northern exposure. “French wanted that crisp, clear light to see his work,” says Blache. The studio features an innovative railroad track built into the floor that allowed French to move his massive sculptures from the indoors to the outdoors so he could see how they looked in daylight against a backdrop of grass and trees. “He was very concerned about how his sculptures would look in their final destination, and he would take compass settings during his site visits,” says Blache. “And then he would position the sculptures outside so he understood how they would be seen in various light.”
For anyone who wants to understand why artists have long been drawn to the Berkshires, Chesterwood is a must-see (along with The Mount, Norman Rockwell’s studio and the often overlooked Frelinghuysen Morris House.) “French didn’t come here to relax. He came here to work,” says Hassler. “He worked seven days a week.” But he very much appreciated the natural beauty of the site with its view of Monument Mountain, and he planted a formal garden and created walking paths through the woods that visitors enjoy today. Although his residence is not as grand as the Gilded Age cottages in nearby Lenox, it’s a stately house with vintage wallpaper and furnishings, which provides a visceral sense of a bygone era. Visitors are allowed to take self-guided tours of the partially refurbished house. In the upstairs hallway, this summer’s special exhibition features contemporary photomontages by Berkshires artist Julie McCarthy, which pay homage to French’s daughter, Margaret French Cresson, a sculptor who spent almost every summer of her life at Chesterwood. Cresson had the foresight not only to cede Chesterwood to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1968, but also to reach out to foundries and marble cutters to return the plaster casts of her father’s work so that they could be displayed together to tell the story of his career.
The property’s original 19th century barn is the foundation for the compelling visitor’s center, which makes clear the magnitude of French’s accomplishments, including the double-tiered white marble fountain at DuPont Circle in Washington D.C., which features carvings of three classical nudes symbolizing the sea, the stars and the wind on the fountain’s shaft; and the elaborate, multilayered “Four Continents” sculptures of Africa, America, Asia and Europe for the façade of the U.S. Custom House at Bowling Green in New York City. Chesterwood celebrates contemporary sculpture, too, by showcasing the work each summer of a different artist, and this year the work of Albert Paley will be on view from June 14 through October 13. And if you want to fully immerse yourself in the Chesterwood experience, you can even spend a night in French’s second studio building known as Meadowlark, which has been converted to a guest house decorated by Hammertown Barn and operated by the Red Lion Inn.
One of Chesterwood’s current champions and patrons is the photographer Annie Leibovitz, who featured it in her 2011 book, Pilgrimmage, and returned in 2012 to shoot a fashion story for Vogue (left) in the studio. Leibovitz is the chair of the re-opening gala on May 23. The following day, the studio opens to the public in a new installation that is more accurate than the previous version. “We studied a lot of photographs to get it right,” says Hassler. “We’ve tried to create the feeling that Daniel Chester French was in the midst of working and just stepped out for lunch.”
4 Williamsville Road, Stockbridge, MA
In May, June and September, Chesterwood is open Thursday through Monday 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., and is closed Tuesday and Wednesday.
In July, August and October, Chesterwood is open 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. daily.
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