Houghton Library Blog 2013-12-20
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) and Daniel Chester French, (1850-1931)
Ralph Waldo Emerson sits silently as a dark bronze statue, watching young Harvard scholars travel in and out of their classrooms.
Mr. Emerson, in Emerson Hall.
He sits majestically as a marble sculpture, overseeing readers at the Concord Free Public Library.
(pfMS Am 2901) : Mr. Emerson at the Concord Free Public Library?
He sits coyly as a forest sprite, in a corner of the Z-closet at Houghton library.
(zMS Am 2233) : Mr. Emerson on his shelf at Houghton Library.
It seems that Emerson is everywhere, but who has actually seen him?
Emerson sat for sculptor Daniel Chester French in Concord, March, 1879. French’s stepmother had encouraged him to capture the aging Emerson’s likeness before it was too late. The sculptor’s “…improvised studio was, for his convenience, a room on the lower floor of his house, and here, almost daily for a month, patiently and uncomplainingly, this good man sat to me…”. French wrote to a friend “…knowing how difficult is the task and how often it has been tried before. I have one advantage over others of having known him long & well…” 
“My own acquaintance with Mr. Emerson began when my father took up his abode in Concord in 1867…”, French recalled. And, as a twenty-year-old, while “…spending an evening at his house soon after his return from abroad, he seated me comfortably in a chair before a big magnifying glass and, himself standing, placed in position for me to see a collection of photographs of pictures and statues and places in which he knew I would be interested.” Emerson, had left his own mark on the young artist.
The sittings of 1879 resulted in a bust that was replicated in plaster, marble and bronze. A bronze is currently on view as part of an exhibition on Daniel Chester French at the Concord Museum along with a marble from the Concord Free Public Library and a plaster version from a private collection. Harvard University acquired the very first version in marble. The bust was important as a firsthand reference for the seated statue of Emerson that French produced after Emerson’s death.
In 1891 French was approached to make a sculpture of Emerson for the Boston Public Library, but that commission never materialized. Then in April of 1896, the Town of Concord “…proposed to erect, at some suitable place in Concord, a statue of Ralph Waldo Emerson…”. A committee formed which set out to raise funds and to recruit Daniel Chester French.
French agreed, and wrote in response, “…Whether the statue should represent Mr. Emerson as seated or standing would depend a good deal upon the site which it is intended the statue shall occupy…, I have always thought of the statue as a seated one. Whether it should be executed in marble or bronze, is again, largely a matter of environment. If it were going in a very light room I should advise marble. As regards the likeness, marble is a finer material than bronze; while bronze gives the general form, the fineness of expression is often somewhat interfered with by the blackness and the sheen of this material.”
French consulted daguerreotypes, photographs, and his own 1879 bust in order to complete the work. The full-scale seated marble sculpture was begun sometime after 1910 and finished in 1914. It still sits majestically, overseeing patrons at the Concord Free Public Library in Concord Massachusetts, though no longer positioned opposite the original main entrance.
Daniel Chester French portrayed Emerson with a garment over his suitcoat. He said that “The gown which was used as drapery was one that he wore in his study in the winter and took the “ name by which it was known in the household, ‘the Gaberlunzie,’ from the character of Eddie Ochiltree in Scott’s Antiquary. It is still in existence and in the possession of his daughter. It is a heavy, wadded and quilted, dark blue garment, and one can easily believe that its voluminous folds were very grateful to the poet and essayist of a winter’s morning in his study in the northwest corner of the house.” Emerson’s robe or “gaberlunzie” was apparently sewn by his wife, Lidian Jackson Emerson.
French had produced working models for the final sculpture that resides in the Concord Free Public Library. Houghton owns a small bronze maquette of French’s seated Emerson (zMS Am 2233), the gift of Edith Emerson Forbes, November 1916 (below). It normally sits coyly, in the Z-closet, but is here shown sitting in the Houghton Reading Room. It appears to also be described, but not pictured, on the website of the Harvard Art Museums.
Below are inscriptions from the base of the bronze maquette.
The foundry marks look like they were tooled onto hard clay or plaster cast from the original clay. (zMS Am 2233)
A tag accompanies this bronze statuette, marking its loan to the Fogg Art Museum’s (travelling) exhibition entitled: Metamorphoses in Nineteenth Century Sculpture, November 19, 1975 – January 7, 1976.
Houghton’s bronze maquette (above) was studied carefully at the time of Metamorphoses. The exhibition catalog by the same name (pages 219-247, “Daniel Chester French” are by Michael Richman) pictures the plaster maquette from which that bronze was made (p. 240). It points out that the base of Houghton’s bronze maquette retains the signature and marks of the artist and foundry; and that these are absent from the apparently reworked base on the plaster working model (from Chesterwood) pictured in the catalog, guessing that the base of the plaster may have been damaged while casting the bronze.
The catalog also pictures (p. 238) a tinier (H. c. 32.5 cm), earlier (AUG 17 1911) plaster maquette that is much less detailed, belonging to French’s studio, Chesterwood. This maquette is currently on loan from Chesterwood to the exhibition, From the Minute Man to the Lincoln Memorial: The Timeless Sculpture of Daniel Chester French, and can be viewed at the Concord Museum.
The Harvard Alumni Bulletin, v. 19, No. 11, December 7, 1916 pictures “the working model in clay” that was supposed to have been a gift to Harvard from Mrs. William H. Forbes (Edith Emerson Forbes, Emerson’s daughter). It resembles the Houghton bronze maquette (zMS Am 2233) with its knitted brow, comparatively small base; visibility of the lines of the vest/suitcoat and gaburlunzie lapel; and the triple-fluted hand grip of the arm rest. It is a good visual comparison of how this version differs from the final piece in marble.
However, catalog records of such a clay model at Harvard are elusive. Interestingly, the Harvard Art Museums website lists among its holdings a painted plaster statuette of Emerson by Daniel Chester French (Harvard University Portrait Collection, P165, signed: left base: DCF, Oct. 1911) of a size almost identical to Houghton’s bronze maquette (zMS Am 2233). But the website does not picture it or mention its location.
The Metamorphoses catalog (p. 243) notes that French was often paid by a donor (or family member) to cast a bronze of a working model for them, which is how it may have come to be owned by Edith Emerson Forbes. French had a professional photographer working in his studio who would take pictures of the final life-sized clay sculptures before they were cast in plaster. The plaster casts would serve as a measurement for marble. Might French have also photographed a plaster cast, at its most flattering angle, for distribution to donors or the public as a photograph of the finished piece? A plaster would retain the freshness of a clay original, but also appear more like marble.
Houghton owns a framed photograph (below: pfMS Am 2901) of a piece that looks very much like the finished marble sculpture at Concord. It is the same image that French first made public as “The Statue of Ralph Waldo Emerson by Daniel Chester French“; and that was published in Art World as the “Marble Statue of Ralph Waldo Emerson … now in Concord, Mass.”
This framed image (pfMS Am 2901) was given to Harvard University by Dr. Edward W. Emerson (Emerson’s son) in 1916.
A label on the verso of the frame describes the photograph (?) or the artwork in the photograph (?) as “From the statue of Ralph Waldo Emerson by Daniel C. French in the Concord Library”. It includes a branch under Emerson’s chair seen also in the final sculpture. But Emerson’s face is strikingly lifelike, with a texture that doesn’t seem characteristic of marble; the dark background behind him is blank; and the foundation for the base, whose bottom edges are irregular, is not visible. In fact there seems to be a black cloth draped underneath it as if perhaps the statue had not yet been put into place.
In these ways, Houghton’s photograph looks much like the two side-view images of the final full-size clay model, photographed by A. B. Bogart in French’s studio, as reproduced on page 242 and described on page 243 of the Metamorphoses catalog. The statue in Houghton’s photograph (pfMS Am 2901), though, has a bit brighter surface, suggesting that it might be a final plaster (rather than clay).
It is hard to tell on what foundation the statue may have originally rested in the lobby of the Concord Free Public Library, but today it is on a heavy rectangular wooden base with a plaque reading “Ralph Waldo Emerson”. [Several other prints of the photograph, not owned by Houghton, are shown on the website of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Society. One of them appears to be signed and dated by the artist. Another reveals more of the drapery beneath the base of the sculpture. This website also shows what appear to be some photographs of the statue as it originally stood in the Concord Public Library's lobby].
The photograph also seems to picture a small nick in the base of the sculpture, (see below) three-fourths of the way down the edge of the forecorner near Emerson’s left foot, that is not present in the final marble sculpture at Concord.
Recent photographs taken of the finished marble statue of Ralph Waldo Emerson in the Concord Free Public Library capture details mentioned above, and illustrate some of the differences between Houghton’s photograph and the finished marble.
Houghton also has a framed photograph of a second maquette of an Emerson statue (pfMS Am 2900), source and date unknown. This plaster maquette was made by artist Frank Duveneck (1848-1919) for a different statue that was to reside in Harvard’s Emerson Hall.
(pfMS Am 2900) Photograph of plaster maquette for Frank Duveneck’s bronze statue of Emerson now in Emerson Hall (below).
Duveneck completed the dark bronze statue that sits silently in Harvard’s Emerson Hall, a gift of the Class of 1831.
Bronze statue of Ralph Waldo Emerson by Frank Duveneck in Emerson Hall
According to the 25th Annual Report of the Cincinnati Museum Association, for the year ending December 31, 1905, p. 21, the maquette was a gift to their Museum from the sculptors Frank Duveneck and Mr. Clement J. Barnhorn. It was “… the original plaster model of their heroic statue of Emerson for Harvard University. Those who were fortunate enough to see the clay model in the artists’ studio at the Museum will welcome the plaster model as a permanent feature of our collection of American sculpture.”
Inaccurate notes appear on the verso of Houghton’s framed photograph of the Duveneck sculpture (pfMS Am 2901) misidentifying the image as being the work of Daniel Chester French.
According to the Harvard Crimson (May 14, 1965), it “was placed in the building on May 25, 1905…” when “it became the first in the United States devoted to the study of philosophy”. Unlike French’s version, Duveneck’s Emerson is holding open a book with his finger, and is not wearing his “gaberlunzie”. Presumably, like French, he had access to photographs and other likenesses, but it would be interesting to consider whether Duveneck had ever seen Emerson in person? Or whether the two artists had ever met?
The Metamorphoses catalog (p. 239) mentions, that on December 6, 1905, Daniel Chester French wrote a letter to George A. King about the Concord statue, saying, “…I need not say how much it gratifies me to know that you and Edward Emerson wish me to make the statue. I should feel aggrieved to have anyone else make it. I should at least bring to the task the greatest reverence and love for my subject.”
Emerson reached and inspired many. Both he and his likeness were well-travelled. Some have even spoken about the connection and similarity between Emerson and Abraham Lincoln, both the men and the Daniel Chester French statues (Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C.).
It seems like Emerson is everywhere. Have you seen him?
Footnotes, Anecdote, Additional material & Video, see below.
Antiques & Fine Art, Autumn/Winter 2013, A HERITAGE OF BEAUTY, ‘From the Minute Man to The Lincoln Memorial: The Timeless Sculpture of Daniel Chester French’ by Dana Pilson, pp. 164-165.
ibid. p.165, Daniel Chester French letter to Ellen Ball, 1879.
The Fogg Art Museum now verifies that “the working model in clay” is most likely their painted plaster statuette, (Harvard University Portrait Collection) P165. Unlike the plaster working model at Chesterwood, Harvard’s P165 does seem to have French’s signature on the base. An official photograph of the statuette will appear soon on their website.
Anecdote, Additional & Video:
(1) Emerson’s daughter, Ellen, shared an anecdote about the bust in a letter to her cousins, Haven and Susy, June 11 & 12 1879, (p. 347 of Edith Gregg’s The Letters of Ellen Tucker Emerson, Kent State University Press, copyright 1982 by the Ralph Waldo Emerson Memorial Association):
“After Uncle George’s lecture on Brook Farm, Mother said to me ‘I wish Dan French could have seen your Father while Uncle George was reading, he looked just as I like to have him.’ I said I thought he had. The next morning Edward Simmons came down to see the bust, and said ‘I noticed Dan’s expression last night, and then I saw he was sitting exactly opposite Mr. Emerson; so I went round & whispered “Dan, if you’re like me, you’re at work.”And he answered “Hard at work.”‘ Presently Dan arrived & I told him Mother’s speech. ‘Oh! of course I saw it’ said he, ‘the very expression I struck out for when I began the bust. And then it changed to the expression I have on the bust, and I saw the difference. It is hard to think it is too late to put it on.’ All these speeches I repeated to Father afterwards who listened with interest. ‘Did he want a particular expression? Why didn’t he tell me? I would have put it on.’ ‘Put it on! Oh Father! You couldn’t possibly put on an expression.’ ‘Oh’ said father smiling at my surprise, ‘on old cock can.’ Nevertheless I believe he couldn’t.”
(2) Be sure to click on “Emerson’s robe” if you haven’t done so already, to see some recent photographs. (It may take a minute to load).
(3) The Metamorphosis catalog, Jeanne L. Wasserman, ed., (pp. 46-50) illustrates some tools and methods used by sculptors to copy or enlarge plaster casts of statues in the nineteenth century. Fig. 29 pictures part of a waste-mold plaster cast of an early maquette of the seated Emerson, showing the metal enlargement points.
(4) The website below shows a modern day sculptor using a special tool to transfer measurements from a plaster cast to a marble sculpture. (French worked primarily in clay and had others do the casts and marble cutting for him).
[This post contributed by Vicki Denby, Curatorial Assistant].