New Figures in Literature and Art: I. Daniel Chester French

BECAUSE an art that reduces itself to the simplest and purest terms of expression brings us immediately in contact with the artist’s idea, it may be said that we have no more transparent canon of æsthetic perfection than that which exists in Greek sculpture. Plastic art, in any country and at any time, would enjoy a similar distinction were its followers always capable of reaching its highest levels. In other words, it is in sculpture that an artist is given at once the most exacting and most inspiring opportunity to express his genius; for as he thumbs away layer after layer of the clay, he leaves less and less to intervene between his conception and the world. Sculpture is the inspiration in the concrete; less absolute, less isolated, than architecture, perhaps, because it is representative, illustrative, where architecture presents nothing save itself, but spared the renunciations of the sublimer art by the absence of utilitarian considerations. It is necessary to make this contention as a basis for the assertion that the subject of this paper carries us as close as it is possible to get to the animating elements of American art. It is only in proportion as he carries us thus close that an artist is interesting and suggestive. To seek the very substructure of an emotion, of a talent, of an art, to pursue the colors of a personality to their uttermost source, may seem sometimes to be refining upon refinement; yet I cannot feel that it is to consider too curiously to consider so, for it is at the roots of things that you find what they have most to give. The Autocrat has a fine figure on this point. “ They little know,” he says, “ the tidal movements of national thought and feeling who believe that they depend for existence on a few swimmers who ride their waves. It is not Leviathan that leads the ocean from continent to continent, but the ocean which bears his mighty bulk as it wafts its own bubbles.” It is the same in art. No artist worth the name ever failed to lead his fellowmen higher and further along the road of spiritual construction ; but no artist, either, who ever produced good work failed to build it on the spirit of his time. I can find, therefore, no more stimulating point of departure, in speaking of Mr. French, than that afforded by his intimate identification with the best thoughts and feelings of his place and time. He is an American sculptor, and his significance for us is that he has been disengaging from the play and interplay of eclectic tendencies what it seems to me must be the American idea. He has himself elements of eclecticism, but the turning-point in that transitional phase of a national art is marked when specific alien equalities are forgotten, and contemplation of a work perceives only its essential, entire effect. Alien qualities are forgotten in Mr. French’s art, as they are forgotten in the works of his two most distinguished contemporaries on this side the water.

Is it often realized, I wonder, how free from fads and fashions sculpture in America has been, how emancipated from the whims of the schools it has been, in comparison with painting? Sculpture, with us, has gone through no such period of disorder and doubt as pictorial art has suffered in impressionism ; it has not felt the force of such a wave of change as swept across our school of painters from the romantic glades of Barbizon. Our best sculptors have been, without effort, our best Americans in art. Take the two colleagues of Mr. French alluded to above, Mr. Olin Warner and Mr. Augustus St. Gaudens. Warner has acknowledged the sway of Greek art, and has embodied in the caryatides of his beautiful fountain on the Pacific coast just such austerely sweet images as you would expect of a classic temperament. The same strain has made itself felt in some of his busts, notably that of Alden Weir, wherein he has subdued a most realistic motive to the serene yet exquisitely veracious temper of a Grecian style. But when Warner rose to the great subject of his Garrison statue, a work infinitely removed from the perfunctory mood to which some thoughtless critics have ascribed it, he responded unmistakably to the Americanism in his theme, and wrought out his dignified work on lines neither classic nor romantic, but intellectual, imaginative, sympathetic, and critical, as the country and the moment demanded. Similarly, Mr. St. Gaudens lias proclaimed in many of his works, in his statues of angels and in his medallions, an instinctive feeling for the grace, the elegance, the decorative charm of Renaissance sculpture. But in the presence of General Sherman, in the presence of Lincoln, all that fell away, and the style in which he has perpetuated those great men is in unshakable accord with their own American fibre. There is no memory of American achievement in art more comforting to carry around Europe than the noble statue of Lincoln which adorns the park named for him in Chicago. In no Continental school has work more elevated or more authoritative been done in any style, and only one of the French masters, Dubois, has risen to the plane of Mr. St. Gaudens’s fine impersonality.

The Parisian school always finds it hard to get away from its idiosyncrasies. Here in America two eminent sculptors, as I have shown, have accomplished the feat, and to them must be added a third in the person of Mr. French. His inclusion in the group is a matter of recent date, if we look at it with reference to definite exhibitions and reintroductions to the public, and he is indeed one of the latest figures in American art; yet it is instructive to observe, as a proof of the logic of evolution, how the nature of his individuality has been left unchanged from the first. I used to think, as I studied the gigantic statue of the Republic at Chicago, during the summer of 1893, and remembered vaguely certain rather decorative busts by Mr. French in long past exhibitions, that the requirements imposed by his architectural surroundings at the Fair had called out a new impulse in him. I thought that he had had the severity of his Columbian work forced upon him, more or less. I find now that he has always cultivated the peculiar tone of simplicity there disclosed so impressively. Looking back systematically over the work which he has put forth since the Minute Man, at Concord, of 1875, his first statue, one is aware that his métier was settled then. I like to think of it as being settled on such a figure in American history. It has been said over and over again that the earliest effort of an American sculptor is bound to be the effigy of an American Indian ; but Mr. French appears to have escaped that, and to have plunged at once into an analysis of the American genius as we know it best, the American idea as it was founded on New England character and courage. The Minute Man is not more than promising as a work of art. Those who have rambled about the old battlefield will remember it as a straightforward, cleanly executed piece of work, in which the idea uppermost is one of physical alertness and defiance. There is in it no touch of the idealizing ambition which led its author to attack Endymion, in his first group, designed in Florence soon after. Imagination has no mean subject in the early defenders of the flag, no matter how homespun their exterior, and in this statue there is no imagination to be apprehended at all. But the work has one quality which it is important to remember. Without being profound, it is yet far from shallow ; it is thoroughly dignified, and, in its tentative way, thoughtful. There, I believe, is one of Mr. French’s chiefest virtues, and one of the things that most make him valuable to us at this stage in the development of American art. I have never seen anything of his that was trivial in subject. I have never known him to fall below his theme. And his subject has always been worth while, partly as a matter of individual taste, and partly owing to his environment. 4 ou could not be born in New Hampshire forty-five years ago, receive your first lessons in modeling, as Mr. French did, from a member of the Alcott family, live at Concord in friendly intercourse with Emerson, sit under Dr. Rimmer’s earnest discourse, and fall back upon thoughts and things of no earthly consequence. The atmosphere in which Mr. French grew up was never without incentives to aspiration and seriousness. Curiously, however, it does not appear that his first adventures in the region of fancy, to which his Endymion had drawn him on the threshold of his European apprenticeship in the studio of Thomas Ball, were prolonged enough or were felt enough to leave any permanent marks upon his career. Much later he returned to that enchanted ground, but between the Minute Man and his first authoritative work, the John Harvard statue, unveiled at Cambridge in 1884, the only outlets he found for his ideas were some allegorical groups for postoffices in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Boston, in which he had nothing to say that bears a deeply suggestive burden now. The meditative turn of mind which has been referred to was not yet liberated from the trammels of immaturity ; it had not yet begun to move freely, intuitively, naturally, and with the special force of an eager individuality around a wholly sympathetic motive. Such a motive came to Mr. French in the Harvard statue.

He was in his thirty-second or thirtythird year, and had labored long in the technique of his art. His earliest handling of the modeler’s tools was in his eighteenth year, and he had been studying continuously ever since. He brought to the execution of the Harvard, then, an accomplished hand and a mind in harmony with the mental and emotional equipoise of his sitter. I speak of Harvard as though he had posed for Mr. French, because, on his massive pedestal amid the Cambridge trees, he sits with just that sharply outlined character of purpose and repose which must have been his in life. It is an entirely just portrait, as it seems to me, of a single-minded Puritan type. We have had the masculine nature that went to mould the Commonwealth very acutely crystallized in American sculpture. The Chapin monument at Springfield, by Mr. St. Gaudens, utters the last word on the stern and almost truculent integrity of Puritan New England, the unbending, uncompromising side of a society with iron laws. Mr. French’s Harvard revives the more urbane lineaments of Puritan scholarship, and shows us a man whose intolerance, whatever it might amount to, would at least be marked by a certain grave reticence. There is nothing choleric in this reflective, almost pensive figure. It is the founder of the university as we would most care to know him, easy, approachable, yet conscious to the full of the gravity of his place in the world. It is an ideal portrait, but its ideality never leaves out of account the restraint, the sense of measure, the almost local traits of manner and bearing, which make of the founder not only a man, but a personality.

I dwell upon these matters because they refer very closely to Mr. French’s own character as an artist. He is himself reserved and jealous of the proprieties which govern his art. To prove this, it is only necessary to consider the excellent taste which rules the Harvard in every one of its details. Here was an opportunity to give picturesqueness its full value, to make the most of Harvard’s interesting costume, one of the most refined and artistic our country has known. Amongst all the old furniture of the time, surely some relic might have provided Mr. French with a much more decorative passage in his design than that which he has extracted from the simple chair reproduced in the group. But for the decorative idea in any such sense as this, for picturesqueness of the sort that might have been derived from Harvard’s dress and shoes, he has no fondness. Decorative he can be when occasion demands it. On the chimney-breast in his studio, he modeled, some ten years ago, an allegorical procession which gives a true and very graceful solution of the problem which any space presents that has been left free for mural decoration. Picturesqueness of a high order he can control when necessary, as a glance at one of his latest productions will demonstrate below. But neither in the arabesque nor in the accidental irregularities of quaint attire does this artist find anything but subsidiary sources of effect. The broad aim of his work is monumental, and in the John Harvard his object was attained with uncommon and almost unqualified success.

If there is a reservation to be made, it is in connection with the self-denial for which Mr. French and two of his fellow-sculptors have just been praised. Mr. French wisely holds his idiosyncrasies in abeyance. But there is such a thing as suppressing them altogether, and that is less judicious. To be impersonal is one thing, to be colorless is another ; and in the Harvard statue it is true that Mr. French comes dangerously near to leaving himself quite out of sight. But it is from excess of virtue that he does so, and the point is made in passing, not as one to be pressed. It may more than once occur to the critic of Mr. French’s work that it lacks something racy, lacks warmth of color and the earmarks of a fervid personality; but that, after all, is only another way of saying that the sculptor is himself, and not somebody else. His temperament, evidently, is not of the impulsive, varied sort. In so far as his work illuminates the question he is of the race of deliberative, even cautious artists; and this being admitted, we revert to the abstract character of the Harvard as to one of the most eloquent revelations of the sculptor’s individuality. The coldness which permeates this work thaws out, moreover, when another subject is undertaken, richer in sentiment and emotion.

Four or five years after the Harvard was put up, Mr. French designed the memorial to Gallaudet which stands in Washington. The beneficent teacher is seated, with his arm around the deafmute girl who was his first pupil. The right hand of each is uplifted in the making of their talk. The faces, turned to each other in mute interrogation and reply, are conceived with genuine tenderness. There is downright pathos in the group. In respect to merely human interest Mr. French has done nothing finer. It is not the moral of the statue, though, to which I wish to call attention. Its value as a work of art resides in the subtle precision with which it suspends two figures, thrilling with emotion, midway between the ebullience of life and the fixity of monumental art. In the simplicity and dignity and symmetry of the group, the rounded excellence of the Harvard is repeated. In the vivacity and poignant intensity which it possesses, it establishes Mr. French on higher ground. He passes through this to the facility and balance distinguishing his treatment of the majestic works which have brought him actual fame.

To attribute the quality of majesty to the statue of the Republic at the Fair, to the Columbus Quadriga reared above the peristyle behind it, and to the Milmore statue in Forest Hills cemetery,near Boston, is not in the least hyperbolical. They deserve the epithet to the full; and it is just because they do deserve it that Mr. French occupies his present position in America. Grandeur, stateliness, the heroic handling of heroic material, these are things for which it is ever necessary to go far afield. They are found in Mr. French’s art, and they are found, furthermore, couched in a language that he has cultivated within our very gates. To resume a line of discussion at which we have already glanced, he has given us an interpretation of beauty which comes not through classic or romantic channels, not through a composite of antique art and modern European, but through a style that is his own, and that is mature, refined, and vigorous. The great colossus that looked down in gilded splendor upon the academic arcades of the Court of Honor remained, for all its reëchoing of their characteristics of simplicity, an American goddess conceived by an American. The ancient severity of line was there in obedience to the spirit that dominated the entire architectural scheme. The tranquillity and power which seemed concentrated in the vast quadrangle of dazzling white were finally summed up and ratified, as it were, in the benign calmness of the goddess who surveyed it all. Yet while she was in it and of it, while the effect of this statue was inextricably mingled with that of the buildings on every side, showing that Mr. French’s sense of relation had never for a moment forsaken him, the intrinsic beauty of the Republic remained different from the beauty of classic art; and I mean different in kind, not in degree. It was a goddess of the West, not of the East. Accepting a certain convention of drapery furnished by Greek, and especially Roman art, the sculptor nevertheless contrived to maintain an atmosphere, a style, an indefinable touch of character and vitality, for which only his native instinct was to be thanked. This judgment was confirmed by the Quadriga, which was lifted to even a higher altitude than the Republic. On the triumphal arch in the centre of the peristyle which screened the buildings from the lake, Columbus rode triumphant in a chariot drawn by mettled chargers, and attended by pages, mounted and on foot. Classic, broadly speaking, this spirited group was ; and indeed there was no more felicitous embellishment in all that extensive panorama of antique beauty than the dauntless captain riding on in power, like a new Cæsar at the portals of a new Rome. But here again Mr. French disarmed such judges as might have been disposed to question the unborrowed origin of his work. The classic framework of the Quadriga was compelled by the exigencies of the situation. The management of the group, once its reference to the peristyle and the court was decided upon, was dictated purely by Mr. French’s natural habit; the group took on the air of severe simplicity combined with force of execution which had been foreshadowed! in the John Harvard of ten years previous. There was improvement, of course, signalized in the later work ; there were gains in flow of line, in breadth, most of all in virility and picturesqueness. Here, raised to a higher power, was the movement which began to stir in Mr. French’s group of Gallaudet and his pupil. With the most engaging persistence and faith, he had worked out the principles those works had first advanced. He had applied them in the celebration of even more imposing themes, and they were discovered to be more potent than had first seemed possible.

If I have touched upon the works at Chicago before discussing Mr. French ’s most remarkable monument, which has a prior claim in point of time, it is because the hitter really provides the most natural period on which to terminate an examination of his art. For years after he first became known, his work enforced respect and admiration. At the Fair, the Republic and the Quadriga widened immensely the sculptor’s celebrity. But it was upon the appearance of the Milmore monument, in 1892, that the scope of his talent was recognized and applauded most significantly ; it was then that he was established in the place in which this paper finds him, in the very front rank. It is this monument which turns criticism into something not unlike eulogy. Martin Milmore, over whose grave it now stands, was an Irish sculptor, whose figure must still be remembered in Boston, since he died there only a few years ago, in 1887. He it was who was responsible for the soldiers’ monument on the Common, and whose handiwork was invoked in the same cause at Mount Auburn. He was an older man when he died than the stalwart young chiseler represented in Mr. French’s monument; but it may be said, apropos of this, that in no respect does the latter follow the facts in the dead sculptor’s career. To do this was not Mr. French’s intention. What he wanted to symbolize was the curtailment by death of any manly life dedicated to plastic art, and to recall in the Sphinx upon which his sculptor is engaged, not the well-known monster which Milmore himself once produced, but the insoluble mystery which stands forever between life and death. To most of the readers of these lines the design of this beautiful statue is probably familiar. It represents a sculptor laboring upon a basrelief of the Sphinx. As he stands with chisel and hammer uplifted, the angel of death approaches and arrests the hand in its task. The idea is simplicity itself. The allegory needs no elucidation. The group has no complexities. Its meaning is pithily conveyed. Yet no work has made its entrance into the field of American sculpture which has left an impression more deep, more lovely, more richly laden with the solace of lofty sentiment beautifully enshrined. I have said that after his first poetic essay, the Endymion done in Florence many years ago, Mr. French ceased to make fanciful idealism his guiding principle to any great extent. In the Milmore group he resumed the imaginative impulses of his youth, and fortified now by experience in thought and manual training he reached his goal. There, as the statue shows, he has achieved more than the most sanguine admirer of his Harvard would have prophesied. Some of the inner qualities of this statue might have been expected. It has been pointed out that the first work done by Mr. French, the Minute Man, is typical of a high-minded artist, and every step by which he has risen to this later victory has held the assurance of pure ideals loyally served. But in the Milmore, along with poetry, ideality, and nobility of conception, there is visible also the power of performance so worthy of the thought that the technique shares the beauty of the latter. We have in this statue the spiritual possessions of a fine nature fused in a splendid scheme of line and surface ; we have a plastic unit wrought with that elevation of style which sets a work apart, a statue interpenetrated with the spirit that gave it birth.

Therein is Mr. French’s service to American art, therein do we feel the American tone of his utterance, therein do we find his claim to unstinted praise. What is needed in American art is exactly the impetus toward reflection and independent effort which he offers. He is not, I repeat, a classicist, yet he comes very close to that type of artist in those precious qualities of dignity, simplicity, and fineness which all art ought to possess. And he is the more fruitful in texts for the mere technician to ponder because he disproves completely that busy person’s pet assumption, that for art to have a meaning is for it to degenerate into story-telling, and to lose all its charm of form. In the Milmore monument, the young sculptor presents a type of young strength superbly modeled, and the angel, with her slowly moving form and outstretched arm, is magnificent in the resistless sweep of her carriage. Could any tour de force of the clever craftsman mean so much as this ? Mr. French is more than a craftsman, and his example, therefore, is beyond price in this period. His star has risen very recently, but it flings a steadfast beam of pure and welcome light into the ranks of the American school. There it helps the older painters and sculptors in dissipating the foolish glimmerings of the thoughtless.

Royal Cortissoz.