By Wendy Swanson
Tuesday, June 14, 2022
A few days before the weekend of the Lincoln Memorial Centennial celebration, the Arts Club of Washington sponsored a program in honor of the occasion. The topic for the evening was a most appropriate one. Lincoln historian Harold Holzer, shown here, spoke on the life and times of Chester Daniel French, the sculptor of the seated Lincoln that dominates the interior of the Lincoln Memorial. No one can match Holzer’s knowledge regarding either the Lincoln Memorial or French. He is, after all, the author of Monument Man: The Life and Art of Daniel Chester French, his 2019 biography of the sculptor. A nice tie-in: French was a charter member of the Arts Club.
Mr. Holzer is known as a speaker who always presents an informative, educational and, at the same time, entertaining talk, one filled not only with historic facts but also with human- interest anecdotes. The Arts Club program was no exception. His lecture included some content similar to that he gave at the May 22 program at the Lincoln Memorial. However, this version was slide-illustrated, further enhancing his narrative and expanding the information provided. As a result, while listening to the speaker’s commentary, attendees were able to view the corresponding images of French’s creations, both from this country and abroad, ranging from the “Minute Man” in Concord to the Memorial’s seated Lincoln.
Holzer described the working relationship between the Memorial's architect, Henry Bacon, and the sculptor, French, (shown to the right), explaining why each had been a shoo-in to fill their respective roles for the Memorial project. The presentation images displayed the steps needed to create the statue. Of particular interest were images of a miniature model of the proposed monument as well as another that showed the pieces of the sculpture, still requiring assembly to make the final product, the monumental Lincoln.
Holzer's narrative covered the Memorial’s story from its origins (that “gosh darn” swamp) to the present, documenting pivotal moments in between (Marian Anderson’s concert, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” Obama’s pre-inaugural program) that contributed to the Memorial’s transition into an icon for social justice. Likewise, Holzer noted that Lincoln himself had replaced Uncle Sam as a national symbolic figure. The slides also highlighted Lincoln in popular culture, in movies and in political cartoons – from the famous sketch of Lincoln weeping after the death of John F. Kennedy to more recent political drawings depicting imagined reactions of the Sixteenth President to recent election results.
Holzer also added touches in his narrative to personalize the individuals being discussed. He started his lecture by showing a photograph of French as a three-year old. The youngster had longish hair, in ringlets; and dressed in a skirted outfit, he could easily have been mistaken for a girl. A cherub look-alike with a smile that could light the room! This image provided an interesting contrast with those of French later in life, ringlets long gone.
Holzer noted too that the young French’s passion was birds, not art. French apparently returned to this interest when he expanded his career to begin producing a new type of artistic product: figurines and groupings for home decorations. One of his earliest works, entitled “Matchmaking” or “Honeymoon,” starred a charming pair of owls, shown here. Unfortunately, the young artist’s profits from this work amounted to little for his efforts. He had transferred ownership of the piece, receiving only a small amount for doing this. The sculpture was essentially mass produced with copies for sale throughout the continent. Sales of this grouping were vigorous, but French did not reap financial rewards from this, his first popular work
Brought to life too by Holzer were the Piccirilli brothers, French’s favorite carvers from the Bronx, charged with turning marble into Lincoln. The brothers sculpted to the sound of opera. Holzer reported a seamless operation: when one brother stopped his work to take a break, another effortlessly took his place so that the work continued. Work did stop for lunch. Undoubtedly, workers tried not to miss this meal for the Piccirillis prepared and served Italian dishes. One could almost smell the ravioli!
The evening gave attendees a quick study on the most pertinent points of the Lincoln Memorial story – its history, its design and profiles of those who created the monument with its seated Lincoln. An evening of fascinating history and good fellowship – what more could one ask of a prelude to a monumental weekend!
Following the formal program and a spirited question and answer session, attendees were invited to join a reception, giving all the opportunity for conversation as well as sustenance. They also had time to enjoy the history of the Federal-style brick townhouse that serves as an art gallery and performance/gathering space for the Arts Club.
James Monroe and his wife Elizabeth moved into the house in 1811 following his appointment to President Madison’s cabinet. After the British burned the White House during the War of 1812, Monroe’s residence became a “social hub for the city.” When Monroe himself was inaugurated as president, the White House still was not ready for habitation. Monroe’s home served as his official presidential residence during the first few months of his presidency, or until September 1817, when the White House reopened. His first inaugural ball took place in the second-floor parlor of the building. In a somewhat unexpected turn of events, the house became home to the British legation after the Monroes departed.
Other personages who have walked these halls include Charles F. Adams, Sr., politician and historian and grandson of John Adams and son of John Quincy Adams as well as his own son, noted historian Henry Adams. Cleveland Abbe, famed meteorologist and founder of the U.S. Weather Bureau, lived here from 1877 to 1909. The Arts Club purchased the building in 1915. The house - alternately known as the Abbe House, the Timothy Caldwell House (Caldwell was the builder and original owner), and the Monroe-Adams-Abbe House - was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1975. A plaque by the front door honors Abbe and one in the yard, Monroe.
We also take this opportunity to extend special thanks to Lincoln Group member, Caroline Van Deusen, also a member of the Arts Club and the individual who made Lincoln Group members' participation in this event possible.
(Photo credit - Owls - Chesterwood.org)