Saturday, July 2, 2011

Daniel Chester French in the Metropolitan Museum

I took my camera to the American Wing of the Met, which is still mostly closed for renovation, and photographed two major works by Daniel Chester French that I've loved for years. These are two marble copies of memorials made by French at the request of the museum. The originals are in cemeteries in Massachusetts.

The first is the Melvin Memorial. This is French's copy of the centerpiece, a figure of Victory who seems to be emerging out of the stone veiled by the American flag. This was made for the tomb monument of 3 brothers who all died together in the Civil War. The monument was commissioned by the surviving 4th brother about 40 years after their deaths. French's copy in the Met is less a copy, than a much altered variation on the monument. French moved the figure of Victory from left to right in the copy.

What a sculptor this guy was! I love the beautiful rhythmic harmony of the hair and drapery, and the way the body fits in so perfectly. I also like the off-center composition that focuses our attention on that solemn and mysterious face.

I really enjoy French's work, and the work of the American Renaissance in general. One of the things I enjoy most about it is the pronounced element of sexuality in all of this work. Yes, we fixate a lot on sex these days, but our libidos play a much larger role in creativity than we, or the generations of the late 19th century, liked to acknowledge. And that has been true, and will be true, as long as we are human. Unlike a lot of 19th century artists, French does a very fine job of integrating those very personal and physical passions into forms that are supposed to articulate public ideas.

Everyone's favorite monument by French is the Milmore Memorial. The original is in bronze, and still stands in a cemetery outside Boston. It was made for the tomb of another sculptor who was a close friend of French, Martin Milmore, who died at 39 from liver disease. Martin's brother Joseph, a stonecutter who frequently collaborated with his brother, also lies buried in the tomb. While I've not seen the bronze original in person, I think French's marble copy for the Met is wonderful.

The centerpiece is usually known as "Death and the Sculptor" showing the angel of death interrupting a very young sculptor working on a large sphinx. Martin and Joseph Milmore did indeed carve a large Egyptian sphinx as part of a Civil War monument that still stands in the same cemetery as this memorial. Frankly, I think French's version of the sphinx is much better than Milmore's original.

I'm not quite sure why French decided on so young a figure. I doubt that this is supposed to be a portrait of Martin Milmore at any time in his life, but instead a vision of promising talent cut short by untimely mortality. The stone strut between the figure and the back plane is always a giveaway that this is a marble copy of a bronze original.
Yes, I think he's hot. So much NeoClassical art, including public monuments, is full of hot young athletes. French carved a lot of them. So did Frank McMonies. We notice these days, but I doubt anyone (publicly or in print anyway) noticed the sexuality in these figures back then. It was an unspoken assumption widely accepted at the time that men were not sex objects. Eakins could go skinny dipping with his male students and no one would notice (maybe they should have), while taking the figleaf off of a female model got him fired from the Pennsylvania Academy.

Here is the head of the young sculptor with that wonderful startled expression.

The Angel of Death, a great Victorian death figure, probably the best, with heavy drooping rhythms and the head with filed down "veiled" features in the shadow. She holds poppies in her right hand.

She stops the artist in mid work.

And the high point of the drama is in the encounter of the hands as Death takes his chisel and stops him forever.

I don't think this monument lost anything by being transcribed into marble. It may have even gained a whole new resonance and mystery, a kind of deathly pallor and veiled quality that bronze can't have.


Murdoch Matthew said...

I have an eye for hot guys in sculpture, and I never saw these works at the Met. Beautiful stuff. Lovely writing. Thank you, Doug.

JCF said...


So does anyone, suspect French was, y'know? [I mean, the @ss on the young artist: golly! ;-p]

Counterlight said...

Well I suspect he was, based on the evidence of his work.
It's to the point where I presume that all the NeoClasicals are gay until I find out otherwise. The only certainly straight ones I can think of are Ingres and Saint Gaudens.
Guerin, Girodet, Flaxman, Thorvaldsen, McMonies, Rude, Flandrin, even the great JL David, all sisters.

JCF said...

It's to the point where I presume that all the NeoClasicals are gay until I find out otherwise.

Well, if they're adopting "the practices of the Ancient Greeks", it figgers!