Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Daniel Chester French

Where is Daniel Chester French buried?  Where is his daughter, Margaret, buried?

French is buried at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, MA.

Margaret is buried next to her husband, William Penn Cresson, in the cemetery of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Oaks, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia.

Daniel Chester French (Photo courtesy of the Chapin Library, Williams College, Gift of the National Trust for Historic Preservation/Chesterwood, a National Trust Historic Site, Stockbridge, Massachusetts)

Daniel Chester French (Photo courtesy of the Chapin Library, Williams College, Gift of the National Trust for Historic Preservation/Chesterwood, a National Trust Historic Site, Stockbridge, Massachusetts)


The infamous Abraham Lincoln/sign language story:

According to many people, Lincoln’s hands appear to be in the sign language positions for the letters A and L.  This is a coincidence and unintentional.

French’s reasons for the positioning of Lincoln’s hands were aesthetic and not intended to be a reference to sign language.  In a letter to Charles Moore (one of the members of the Commission of Fine Arts), French wrote:

What I wanted to convey was the mental and physical strength of the great war President and his confidence in his ability to carry the thing through to a successful finish.  If any of this “gets over”, I think it is probably as much due to the whole pose of the figure and particularly to the action of the hands as to the expression of the face.  (May 13, 1922)

Other comments by French in letters and to his daughter, Margaret, suggest his desire to capture Lincoln’s will in the statue’s pose, including his hands.

Both of Lincoln’s hands were cast by Leonard Volk in 1860 in the closed position.  French owned commercial copies of Volk’s life casts and referenced them extensively during the making of his statue for the Lincoln Memorial.  However, he did not like the appearance of Lincoln’s right hand because it was oddly swollen at the time of Volk’s casting.  For the composition of the statue’s right hand, French made a cast of his own hand in the desired pose and then referred to it while working on the model.

It is important to note that the hand on the statue is not French’s hand.  French merely used the cast of his own hand as a reference point — he imagined what Lincoln’s hand would have looked like if Volk had cast it in the same position when it was not swollen.

However, French intentionally used American Sign Language for the Thomas Gallaudet Memorial (1885-89), which honors one of the inventors of ASL.  When you look at the statue, Gallaudet and his pupil, Alice Cogswell, are signing the letter A.

How did French meet the Piccirilli brothers?  How did he meet Henry Bacon?

We’re fairly confident that French and Henry Bacon met at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

How he met the Piccirilli brothers is more of a mystery…According to scholar Michael Richman, author of Daniel Chester French: An American Sculptor, the Piccirilli brothers moved to New York in the 1890s.  Prior to 1900, French sent his models to Italy to be carved by Italian craftsmen, usually under the supervision of his friends Thomas Ball and Preston Powers (son of Hiram Powers).  After 1900, however, the Piccirilli brothers “execute[d] all but two of his marble commissions” (Richman 23).  Thus, one can infer that French met the Piccirilli family shortly after they moved to New York.

Their first major commission together probably was The Continents (1903-07) at the United States Custom House in New York.  Since the architect Cass Gilbert (1859-1934) received the commission for the building and hired French to complete the four allegorical statues, it is possible that Gilbert also selected the Piccirilli brothers as carvers and, therefore, introduced the brothers to French.

Interestingly, the brothers also worked with French’s mentor, John Quincy Adams Ward (1830-1910).  Ward worked with the Piccirilli brothers on the N.Y. Stock Exchange pediment, which was completed in 1903.  Did French introduce Ward to the Piccirilli brothers…or did Ward introduce French to the brothers?  We don’t know.

Bill Carroll is one of the few historians devoted to researching the life and works of the Piccirilli brothers.  Along with some Chesterwood staff members over the years, he suspects that French gave a bust to Charles Niehaus to translate into marble, but Niehaus (for whatever reason) could not finish it.  As a result, French sent the bust to the Piccirilli brothers, which led to the beginning of their professional partnership.  For more info on the Piccirilli family, please visit his website.

Why was the statue of John Harvard commissioned?  Was it for an anniversary or another significant event?

French was commissioned by Samuel James Bridge, a Bostonian and longtime supporter of Harvard, to design a statue honoring Reverend John Harvard (1607-1638), the university’s namesake and benefactor.  The statue of John Harvard was only French’s second major commission (after The Minute Man), so it was a significant work in his early career.  The bronze sculpture (c. 1883-84) is located on the Harvard College Yard, although it originally was positioned closer to Memorial Hall.  Because there’s no record of Harvard’s appearance, French consulted with the Massachusetts Historical Society and used one of Harvard’s descendants, a man named Sherman Hoar, to imagine how the reverend might have looked.  French’s final work was received positively by art critics at the time.

Was French’s first nude artwork The Awakening of Endymion?

French completed Endymion while he was studying in Italy.  As far as we know, it was his first nude male figure.

Endymion was French’s only life-sized neoclassical statue.  The Greek mythical subject of this work is the young shepherd loved by the goddess of the moon, Selene.  Jealous gods forced Endymion to choose death or the perpetual youth of everlasting sleep.  When French left Florence for America in 1876, he left his finished model behind.  With no buyer to have the work carved in marble, the sculptor used his own funds.  In 1879, the statue arrived in Concord where it remained unsold and languished in the garden of his studio.


What is a French drain?  Are there any French drains on the property?

French drains are a drainage system that was named after French’s father, Henry Flagg French, in the late 1850s.  Henry wrote an authoritative book on the system in 1859.  French drains consist of a pipe in a gravel-filled trench and are usually located at the base of walls to protect them from flooding.

There’s a French drain approximately two feet underground in front of the historic residence.  In recent years, when a subterranean drainage system was installed in the driveway area, we dug down and ran into the French drain.  Unfortunately, since it’s underground, we do not have photos, but it’s interesting to learn that French followed his father’s advice when installing his own drainage system!

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Daniel Chester French Sculptures (Flickr)

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