Editor's note: The following essay, with Endnotes, is printed with permission of the Springfield Library and Museums Association. The essay was included in the 256 page illustrated 1999 catalogue titled Selections from the American Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts and the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, ISBN 0-916746-18-6, pp. 223-225. In addition to the essay, the catalogue contains an image and provenance of the painting and an exhibition schedule. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in purchasing the catalogue, please contact the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts directly through either this phone number or web address:
Daniel Chester French, 1850-1931
The Minute Man, 1771-1775; this cast, around 1875-1876
(bronze, 28 3/4 x 17 X 12 inches, inscribed (on front of base): THE MINUTE MAN 1775, Museum of Fine Arts, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Russell B. Neff, 1979, 79.SO5)
by Thayer Tolles
French, whose career as a sculptor of public monuments spanned six decades, moved to Concord, Massachusetts, with his family in 1867. His first concentrated study of art with local resident May Alcott, during winter 1868-69, was followed by a brief apprenticeship the next year with John Quincy Adams Ward in New York City. French's formal training was completed in Boston in 1871-1872 by anatomy lectures with William Rimmer and drawing lessons with William Morris Hunt.
Given that French's instruction was relatively limited and his early sculptures were portraits and small-scale subject pieces, it is all the more astonishing that by 1875, at age 25, French would complete the Minute Man. This full-size monument of stirring sentiment and enduring quality (Minuteman National Historic Park, Concord, Mass.) honors the centennial of the Battle of Concord at North Bridge. In summer 1871, French completed a 27-inch model of a related figure, which has not survived and thus its appearance is unrecorded. The following year a committee of ten representing the town of Concord was appointed to plan for a monument with funds from a $1,000 bequest provided by resident Ebenezer Hubbard. The committee asked French to prepare a model, and in April 1873 he began sculpting his patriot in his Boston studio. The model was approved in November, and French was officially awarded the Minute Man commission. His contacts with local leaders, including committee member Ralph Waldo Emerson, explain in part the committee's willingness to give the task to an untested local; in turn, the sculptor asked for compensation for his expenses only. He later received an additional stipend of $1,000, not to mention immeasurable payback in prestige and career advancement.
French's Minute Man depicts a farmer becoming a soldier, relinquishing his plow, raising his rifle, and stepping forward resolutely toward battle. He wears realistic Revolutionary-era dress with tall, wrinkled boots and rolled-up shirt sleeves. The plow, with abandoned coat, is a symbol of land he and his militia will defend. This tool was also to serve as a structural support for the standing figure when translated to granite, as the Minute Man committee originally planned. Although the medium was changed to metal in 1873, French retained the plow, a vital element in the composition's structure and narrative. While naturalistic in style, the figure is classic in pose, inspired by the Apollo Belvedere, a cast of which French studied at the Boston Athenaeum. He used the famous statue as a point of departure only: the positioning of the legs is reversed, while the alert and ready stance with insinuation of action carries forth into French's figure. The artist also employed live models in order to make his careful study of facial expression and anatomical structure.
French completed his seven-foot model by August 1874 and displayed it in his studio. The following month he sent the plaster figure to the Ames Foundry, in Chicopee, Massachusetts, the leading American bronze caster of the day. Ames cast the piece using confiscated cannons from the Civil War, and according to a conversation between French's father and a Concord committee member, "The people at Chicopee say they have never made a better casting and they pronounce the statue itself the best single figure they ever cast." The Minute Man was unveiled on April 19, 1875, with great fanfare, but French was not present. He had departed for Florence in October 1874, where he worked in the studio of Thomas Ball for almost two years. Acclaim for the statue was immediate, from Concord, to Boston, where the original plaster was displayed at Doll and Richards, to Philadelphia, where a cast was included in the Centennial Exhibition of 1876.
The casting history of Minute Man reductions is intricate and spans many years, several foundries and heights. Soon after the monument was unveiled, Doll and Richards issued plaster reductions, copyrighted November 12, 1875, which were not commercially successful despite their availability during the nation's centennial year. Springfield's Minute Man is similar to these plasters in surface detail, scale, and inscription, as well as in the beveled corners and edges of the base. This bronze probably dates from this period; however, the paucity of information regarding provenance, the lack of a foundry mark and other identifying inscriptions, and no reference to such a bronze in French's papers allow for little more than speculation. It is documented that French's father, Henry Flagg French, was disappointed that his son had not received fuller compensation for the Concord statue, which led him to permit Doll and Richards to issue reductions of the working model in plaster. Perhaps French, Sr., authorized the casting of Springfield's Minute Man on something of an experimental basis but, for whatever reason, did not further reproduce bronzes. Additionally, the Ames Foundry, in order to recoup a small loss from casting the full-size Minute Man, proposed casting a 125-pound bronze reduction. Although there is no record that this ever took place, it may well have.
Fourteen years later, in 1889, French was asked by a group
of Concord residents to create a reduced version for the Navy gunboat Concord.
After Congress authorized this commission in summer 1889, French reworked
the composition, titling it The Concord Minute Man of 1875. If the
Minute Man statue reveals protean elements of the Beaux-Arts style,
the reworked statuettes reflect a confident command. The result bespeaks
the sculptor's added years of experience and recent tenure in Paris: sharpened,
more expressive facial features, greater attention to textural variation,
and a more animated play of light and shadow on fluid surfaces. French turned
to the Melzar Hunt Mosman foundry, also in Chicopee, for its casting, and
the statuette was installed in 1891 (now at the Navy Memorial Museum, Washington,
D.C.). Around 1913, French
authorized the casting of 32-inch reductions, first at Jno. Williams foundry
and, after 1917, also at Gorham Co. Gorham also made a 14-inch reduction in an edition of ten, beginning
in 1917 through 1939. The
reduction was also available in plaster for many years through P. P. Caproni
1. Michael Richman, Daniel Chester French: An American Sculptor (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1976; reprint, Washington, D.C.: Preservation Press, 1983), pp. 39-40.
2. In his diary, French recorded studying the antique casts at the Boston Athenaeum on March 18 and April 12, 1873. On April 18, 1873, he "began a figure of a Continental." Typescript copy in Daniel Chester French Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., microfilm reel 28, frames 150-151.
3. Henry Flagg French to Daniel Chester French, March 9, 1875, Box 17, French Family Papers, Library of Congress, as quoted in Richman, pp. 41-42.
4. Official Catalogue, International Exhibition, 1876, part 2, 9th ed. (Philadelphia: John R. Nagle and Company, 1876), p. 42, no. 943, as "The Minute-Man, 1775." The piece was lent by Doll and Richards.
5. Richman, p. 47, n. 30. See also Jarl Marmor (pseud.), "Art in Boston.-- II," The Aldine 8, no. 2 (February 1876), p. 64. This notice called the Minute Man "one of the strongest, most spirited pieces of work ever made by so young an artist."
6. Richman, p. 45. George Gurney, Curator, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., generously provided information on plaster statuettes of the Minute Man and drew my attention to a privately owned Doll and Richards cast.
7. Michael Edward Shapiro, Bronze Casting and American Sculpture, 1850-1900 (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1985), p. 81.
8. For an illustration of the Mosman cast for the Concord, see Richman, p. 45. For further information on the foundry, see Shapiro, pp. 100, 101, 169.
9. Among the located examples of Jno. Williams casts are those at Ball State University Museum of Art, Muncie, Ind., and the National Board for Promotion of Rifle Practice, Department of the Army, Washington, D.C. Gorham casts are at the Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, Amherst, Mass.; National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; and the Newark Museum, Newark, N.J.
10. Richman, p. 47, n. 35. See also Shapiro, Bronze Carting, p. 90.
11. P P. Caproni and Brother, Catalogue of Plaster Reproductions from Antique, Medieval and Modern Sculpture (Boston, 1913), p. 35, no. 2905. The piece continued to be published in Caproni catalogues (see for example, 1928, no. 2905).
About the author
At the time of publication of the essay, these biographical notes for the author were included in the catalogue.
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