I’ve been staying out in Lincoln, MA during my two-week research stint at the Massachusetts Historical Society, and in honor of my last night in town, I drove over to the Minute Man National Historical Park to visit Daniel Chester French’s 1875 Minute Man. I have a lot of personal history with this sculpture: it was the main focus of my dissertation chapter on post-Civil War monuments to Revolutionary War soldiers, and I’m hoping that an article I’ve written based on that chapter will find a home in an academic journal soon. On this cool, overcast summer evening, I found the statue looking as handsome as ever, and for once I had the site all to myself for some quiet contemplation.
This statue was the first major work by Daniel Chester French, who would go on to become one of the most celebrated American sculptors of its era. Sculpted when he was just twenty-three, the statue betrays some youthful mistakes in modeling, and there are some angles from which it looks distinctly awkward. But from this particular spot, the young soldier vibrates with youthful vigor and agility. The strong diagonals of the musket, the strap of the ammunition bag, the handle of the plow, and the gracefully extended right leg all contribute to a dynamic forward-facing directionality. And from this angle, the upturned brim of the hat adds an air of insouciance to the figure.
Before sculpting the Minute Man, French was an aspiring sculptor making small tabletop figural groups for sale in Parian porcelain. When conceiving the statue, the Concord monument committee initially envisioned a granite statue that could have been one of the many dotting the American landscape after the Civil War. But in French’s young hands, the statue became something else entirely: a first entry in what would prove to be an exciting artistic career. After he delivered the Minute Man to Concord, French sailed for Italy to further his artistic training, and this first major work opened many doors for his advancement.
There is much more to the story, and I hope to share it all someday. I have thought a lot about how this statue honoring vigorous youth, sculpted in honor of the centennial of the battles of Lexington and Concord, is related to the sectional crisis that had occurred only ten years before. For me, this electrifying sculpture of a Revolutionary soldier would not have been possible without the shadow of the Civil War, which filled American hearts and minds with images of young men going to war. The Revolutionary men who answered the call at Lexington and Concord were all in their graves by the time this statue was dedicated, and those present at the ceremony who remembered them knew them as frail elders. But the statue pulses with the energy of a generation that had seen its own bitter conflicts, and that went to war with a notion of completing unfinished Revolutionary business. As I pursue further writing and publishing on this statue, I hope to advance this interpretation of the Minute Man‘s story.