The Reinterpretation of Daniel Chester French’s Studio

To read Dana Pilson’s blog on the Reinterpretation of Daniel Chester French’s Studio, please visit her website.  Below, you will find her first entry.  Thank you!

Dana E. Pilson is an independent curatorial researcher who was hired by Chesterwood, a National Trust Historic Site, to review, interpret and digitize photographic images of Daniel Chester French’s Studio in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.  Working primarily with the Chesterwood Archives at Williams College’s Chapin Library of Rare Books, her goal is to develop a clearer, more accurate understanding of the Studio’s appearance during French’s lifetime.  This research will form the basis of Chesterwood’s future reinterpretation of Daniel Chester French’s Studio.

This research project is sponsored by an Interpretation and Education Fund grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Donna Hassler, Director of Chesterwood, is the Project Director.

Ms. Pilson received her M. Phil. from the Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY), as well as her M.A. from Boston University and B.A. from Dartmouth College.

– Anne Cathcart, Curatorial Assistant, Chesterwood

Daniel Chester French at work on “Mourning Victory” in his Studio at Chesterwood, 1907

In 2010, most of the documents, photographs, and other archival materials held at Chesterwood were transferred by the National Trust for Historic Preservation to Chapin Library at Williams College for the sake of improved preservation, security, and access to the materials.  This blog will trace my progress as I wade through the material and highlight interesting images and descriptions of French’s Studio as I come across them.  Some objects present in the Chesterwood Studio today were installed after French’s death in 1931.  One of the goals of this project is to discover what the Studio looked like during the sculptor’s lifetime — just which objects were perched on the shelves, hung on the walls, and stood in corners as French created his monumental works?

The archival series begins with boxes full of photographs, loosely organized according to theme and subject.  For example, one box contains photographs of French’s portraits of literary men, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Edgar Allan Poe.  Another box contains photographs of French’s Greek mythological and historical subjects, including statues personifying Greek Lyric Poetry and Greek Religion from the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the Greek princess Andromeda, shown here.  Many of these photographs were taken by professional photographers, who put up screens and slung drapery to hide items in the studio.  Some photos are tightly cropped; others allow a peek around and behind the drapes, into the studio beyond.

Daniel Chester French’s “Andromeda” in the Chesterwood Studio, 1930

The back of this photograph of Andromeda is stamped “DeWitt Ward, 461 Sixth Avenue, New York City, Oct. 1, 1930.”  The photographer DeWitt Ward may have hung a scrim to hide the mundane objects of an artist’s studio and to concentrate attention on the sculpture, but due to lighting effects or the quality of the fabric, the drapery tantalizingly reveals a corner of the room.  It is possible to identify, however tentatively, some of the works on the shelves.

Interior of the Chesterwood Studio with plaster studies for French’s Exeter Memorial on the right

A soldier, standing at attention, is perhaps a study for the war memorial for Gale Park in Exeter, NH.  To the left of the soldier appears to be the accompanying female figure.  Two different-sized studies of the Exeter Memorial can be seen at the Studio today.  Moving to the left, one can see a female portrait head (it’s difficult to say which one for sure) and a round plaque (perhaps a plaster of the American Red Cross Medal that currently hangs on the Studio’s east wall).  Other objects, such as a man’s face in profile, a diminutive angel, and an architectural relief all seem to appear and then disappear.   The diaphanous drapery plays tricks on the eye: the image wavers from being recognizable one moment to a shadowy after-image the next.

Artists Edward Burne-Jones, Theodore Chasseriau, Eugene Delacroix, Rembrandt and Titian all depicted the unfortunate Greek princess, and a sculpture of Andromeda by Domenico Guidi is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Pathetic Andromeda, unaware that Perseus will rescue her, is often portrayed in great distress, pulling in vain against her chains, dreading the moment the sea monster will reveal itself and devour her.  French’s Andromeda appears to doze serenely, basking in the sun.  She does not pull or strain at the chains that bind her to the rock; in fact, the viewer might not realize she is restrained until closer examination reveals shackles at her wrists.  French once stated, “I still believe that the beauty of woman is beauty at its best and highest.”  (Michael Richman, Daniel Chester French, An American Sculptor, p. 197.)  Andromeda is indeed beautiful and decorative, not hysterical or panicked.  French practices great restraint and steers clear of the overly emotional.

The goal of this project is to bring more of French’s Studio out from behind the scrim.  While this particular photograph of Andromeda raises more questions than it answers, other photographs in the archives show the Studio more clearly, and these will be highlighted in subsequent posts, along with future discoveries.

– Dana E. Pilson

Comments?  Questions?  E-mail with “Attn: Dana Pilson” in the subject line.

Daniel Chester French, Edward Clark Potter, and Augustus Lukeman in the Chesterwood Studio garden, 1898

With the exception of the modern photograph of the Exeter Memorial by Dana Pilson, all historic photographs are courtesy of Chapin Library, Williams College, Gift of the National Trust for Historic Preservation/Chesterwood, a National Trust Historic Site, Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

To read Dana Pilson’s blog on the Reinterpretation of Daniel Chester French’s Studio, please visit her website.  Thank you!


Daniel Chester French Sculptures (Flickr)

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