- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 12, 2008

New England boasts the workshops of two of America’s greatest Lincoln and Civil War monument sculptors, and they are just about 100 miles apart.

Chesterwood, the home and studio of Daniel Chester French, sits in a bucolic valley near Stockbridge, Mass., over which the aptly named Monument Mountain, part of the Berkshires range, peers down.

In Cornish, N.H., Aspet, the home and studio of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, is nestled on a hill overlooking the Connecticut River, nature’s dividing line between New Hampshire and Vermont.

Each site is preserved and maintained for the public to enjoy; Chesterwood is a property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Saint-Gaudens’ estate is a unit of the National Park Service, Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site.

Visitors to these gems of American cultural history will learn how heroic sculpture was created and discover how peace and tranquillity played a role in shaping the lives and works of two men who gave the nation differing but nonetheless equally stirring sculpted portraits of Abraham Lincoln and other heroes of the Civil War.

The beginning

Three-and-a-half miles from quaint Stockbridge, a town brought to life most famously on canvas by Norman Rockwell, who also lived and worked there, one comes upon the place where the gentlemanly French erected his country studio.

There he labored for 35 consecutive summers between mid-May and November, spending the other six months in New York City’s Greenwich Village.

He retired to his rural retreat full time later in life. Walking the grounds, it is easy to see why this 120-acre property, a transformed derelict old farm, was near and dear to French and his wife, Mary, his first cousin.

White-tailed deer scamper and frolic, and birds spread their wings above the shaded property while a pleasant breeze playfully tugs at the maples and pines, through which meander paths for leisurely strolling.

French initially wanted to be an engineer, but after flunking out at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he returned to the village of Concord, Mass., where he learned to sculpt under the direction of Abigail May Alcott, sister of author Louisa May Alcott. Legend has it that he first tried his hand at sculpting turnips, impressing Alcott.

With little formal academic training, the 25-year-old French, by 1875, created an American icon, “The Minute Man” statue. Dedicated in Concord near the battleground on the centennial of the “shot heard round the world,” which in part touched off the War for Independence, the sculpture drew wide acclaim, securing French’s place in the pantheon of American artists and launching a long, productive and very successful career.

Facing south

In 1898, French’s architect friend and collaborator Henry Bacon designed for him the studio that stands today adjacent to a matching stucco and green-shuttered house, also designed by Bacon. Here French could entertain as well as discuss business with the high-voltage clients who came to him offering a number of public and private commissions.

Everything in the house is original, dating to 1931, the year French died. It reflects an elegantly simple home of an upscale New England family with an accent on the 1850s.

French had his home placed on an axis facing south because of his deep love for Italy. After his successful completion of “The Minute Man,” French traveled to Florence to study and was enraptured by the Tuscan mountainside. Looking at Monument Mountain from the back porches of his home and studio gave him great satisfaction.

We owe the preservation of Chesterwood to French’s daughter, Margaret, who bequeathed the property in her will to the National Trust. Additionally, she spent much of her lifetime searching for his working plaster models and bringing the 500 that she found to Chesterwood.

Models, sketches

Entering the 30-by-30-foot cube studio is like stepping back in time to the apex of the American renaissance of art, those years between 1875 and 1914 when American art flourished and our public spaces were fitted with statues befitting a powerful nation coming of age. Models of varying sizes and plasticine clay sketches, called maquettes, line the walls and stand on the floor.

French’s tools are laid out as if he were ready to start a day of work, wearing his customary bow tie and knickers. North light, the most important light for sculpting because it casts the least amount of shadow, is brought into the studio from a skylight 30 feet above visitors’ heads. Ropes, tackles and pulleys gracefully weave their way beneath the ceiling and along the walls.

Plaster versions of two of the doors he designed for the Boston Public Library, each with a figure of “Wisdom” and “Knowledge,” peer out into the space. A naked figure of “Memory,” gazing in her mirror, sits in the center of the room, while adjacent to it is the figure French was working on at his death, “Andromeda.The latter was a metaphor for women’s rights, which he ardently supported.

Against one wall is the stunning 7-foot plaster model that was so critical to the final design of his seated Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial in the District. Here you can look Lincoln squarely in the eye and understand why the final version had to be so massive.

Ingenious rail

French ingeniously had a 50-foot railroad track built into the studio. Ten feet extend into the studio, complete with a rail car, flush to the floor on which a turntable was attached. The remaining 40 feet extend to the outside. By this arrangement, French could wheel his sculptures out into daylight and study them from all angles at varying distances. Here he could work out and solve problems, ensuring that the final installed figure worked.

This aspect of sculpting is crucial to a project’s success. A three-dimensional sculpture requires the perfect balance of proper lighting, volume and mass within the context of the space where it is sited. Like all great artists, French was terrified of making mistakes.

He remained committed to creating good portraiture as well as allegorical pieces that were aesthetically pleasing to both private clients and the public at large.

Adjacent to the main studio is the casting room, where clay models were turned into plaster casts.

A curtain divides the main studio from a smaller reception room where French would put his clients at ease during business conversations. At the heart of the success of any public monument in America was the critical sculptor-client relationship.

This also provided privacy for the nude models while French conducted business. As a hobby, French engaged in portrait painting for relaxation, and in the 20-by-30-foot reception room is an easel against which rests a portrait of his wife, Mary, and their child, Margaret.

An exhibit

The gardens of Chesterwood, designed by French, reflect his taste and vision for appropriate landscape design, blending on a double axis a kind of amphitheater based on Italian and English country gardens.

The scents of hollyhocks, phlox and tickseed fill the fresh outdoor summer air. Mixed with these are an array of colors insisted upon by Mary, including hydrangeas, alyssum and the bright yellow of black-eyed Susans.

Today the barn gallery hosts an exhibition that focuses on four of French’s greatest public sculptures, “The Minute Man”; the sitting Lincoln; the Samuel F. Dupont Memorial fountain for the District’s Dupont Circle; and “The Four Continents,” which graces the entrance to the old New York Customs House in Battery Park. Collectively they provide the context of his vision of the meaning of America.

The exhibit explores the central role French played in crafting part of our national identity. During the American renaissance, sculptors and architects became the dramatists of the nation’s core meanings and values, specifically adding a visual record of American civil religion rooted in our fundamental democratic values, commitments, and memories.

A suitable model

Visitors can walk the grounds of the home and studio of the other great sculptural master of the American renaissance, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, in central western New Hampshire.

From a distance, Aspet, named after his father’s hometown in southern France, appears like a white-toothed Federal-style home smiling at visitors who climb a narrow set of steps between hedges to reach the front lawn. Saint-Gaudens’ wife, Augusta, decided in 1885 that the run-down old tavern, called Huggins Folly for its distance off the main road, had real potential for becoming a home, studio and retreat, and she encouraged her less-than-enthused husband to rent the place.

Their good friend Charles Beaman persuaded Saint-Gaudens to journey to northern New England shortly after he had received a commission to sculpt a portrait statue of President Lincoln for Chicago. Beaman promised Saint-Gaudens that this was “the land of Lincoln-shaped men” and that there, in the hills, he would find a suitable model.

He did in Vermont farmer Langdon Morse, who lived on the west bank of the Connecticut River. Thus was born Saint-Gaudens’ 1887 masterpiece for Chicago, “The Standing Lincoln.”

An art colony

For the first three summers, the Saint-Gaudenses rented the property, finally purchasing it in 1890 as a summer home and estate around which would grow the Cornish Art Colony, America’s first such collection of noteworthy artists and writers, including such greats as Maxfield Parrish and Percy MacKaye. As he battled the cancer that eventually would kill him, these friends became an indispensable part of Saint-Gaudens’ life.

Saint-Gaudens renovated the ramshackle tavern, adding a porch, from which one can view Mount Ascutney, across the river in Vermont. He also landscaped the property with a garden, including a small pool honoring the mythic Pan. Sitting here, one is surrounded by the aromas of a variety of shrubs and ornamental flowers.

He also erected two studios to house his ever-growing number of projects. At the height of his career, Saint-Gaudens was operating two studios in New York City, one in Paris and the Cornish enterprise.

After he was diagnosed with cancer in 1900, he would add to his acreage a toboggan run, hockey rink and golf course as he attempted to use physical activity to ward off his disease.

Unfortunately for scholars and art lovers, one of the large barn studios was consumed by fire in 1904, destroying many of Saint-Gaudens’ models, casts, projects and papers. In 1940, scholarship suffered further when fire engulfed the other barn, destroying more models and papers.

Nature trails

Unlike Chesterwood, Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site is more a museum property than a reflection of the artist’s workplace. To help visitors understand the complex sculptural process, the site each summer hosts a sculptor-in-residence who demonstrates in a small studio how a sculptor creates works of art from the basic elements — clay.

Visitors can stroll the grounds on nature trails where Saint-Gaudens was fond of ambling, gaining a glimpse of his appreciation and love of the natural world. A veteran hiker, Saint-Gaudens enjoyed backpacking.

Saint-Gaudens and his wife used the small studio to entertain and dine with the many visitors who were drawn to the genial, lanky sculptor. On its pergola, a plaster frieze hearkening to the arts of the ancients decorates the ceiling line.

Inside the small studio are some models and maquettes that survived the devastating fires. Here bronze reductions of “The Standing Lincoln” and the “Diana” weathervane designed for architect Stanford White’s original Madison Square Garden gracefully stand amid the assorted casts, including the figures Saint-Gaudens designed for the entrance to the Boston Public Library.

Storyteller in clay

Duplicate casts of two other significant heroic Civil War public monuments augment part of his story as one of the leaders of the American renaissance, defining not only an age, but a nation as well.

“The Farragut,” a tribute to the Union’s greatest naval hero, sits on its original innovative pedestal, collaboratively designed with White, successfully harmonizing sculpture and architectural setting, changing forever the way public monuments would be conceived.

The Shaw Memorial, another technical masterpiece, combining sculpture in the round with high and low relief, is dedicated to the first black regiment recruited during the Civil War, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. It sits in a lovely glade.

With these and other public monuments to a pantheon of Civil War greats, including Gens. John A. Logan and William T. Sherman, Saint-Gaudens seems more a landscape narrator and storyteller working in clay rather than in ink.

As death crowded in on Saint-Gaudens, his friends joyously celebrated his life in 1905 with a production of what they called “The Masque of the Golden Bowl.” Gathering near the forest on the western edge of his property, classically dressed nymphs, satyrs and other mythic figures paraded through a small plaster temple.

The celebrants presented Saint-Gaudens with a golden bowl, repeatedly shouting his name into the New Hampshire sky and then carried him off in a chariot.

In 1907, Saint-Gaudens was laid to rest on the property he so cherished; his ashes were placed inside a small crypt on a marble reproduction of the temple his loving and faithful friends designed.

Almost always reticent with regard to any public expression of the philosophy of art and life, Saint-Gaudens would let his guard down once, confiding to his protege, the talented James Earle Fraser, “You can do anything you please. It’s the way a thing is done that makes a difference.”

James A. Percoco is the author of the just-released “Summers With Lincoln: Looking for the Man in the Monuments” (Fordham University Press). He will be doing a noon book talk, followed by a signing, on Thursdayat the National Archives. The talk is free and is open to the public.

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