Road Trip, Part Five: Two Sculptors in the Summer

Two very famous sculptors of the American Renaissance, a time when sculpture seems to have much more appreciated than now, maintained summer houses and studios in New EnglandAugustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907), creator of the Robert Gould Shaw memorial on Boston Common among other masterpieces, and Daniel Chester French (1850-1931), who sculpted Abraham Lincoln and The Minute Man.  I visited both estates on the road trip:  Aspet House, in Cornish, New Hampshire, and Chesterwood, in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

After Saint-Gaudens rather reluctantly settled into circa 1800 former tavern that he renamed Aspet House about 1885 and built several studios and gardens, he inspired the foundation of the “Cornish Art Colony” in the border town and its surrounding area.  It’s a golden valley, encompassing towns in both New Hampshire and Vermont on both sides of the Connecticut River and framed by mountains beyond, particularly Mount Ascutney.  The train was the key factor here as well as down in Stockbridge:  artists and others could escape from sweltering New York City relatively easily and spend their summers in bucolic New England.  After Saint-Gaudens’ death in 1907, the estate declined; generations of preservation advocacy resulted in its acquisition by the federal government in the 1960s and the establishment of the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Park in 1977.  It is beautifully maintained and well-interpreted, well worth a visit from near or far, and there are over 100 examples of Saint-Gaudens’ work on view.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens: a photograph of the sculptor at work by Kenyon Cox (Library of Congress), Aspet House, grounds, and the Little Studio, details and sculpture.

About 140 miles to the southwest, Daniel Chester French bought a 122-acre farm in the western part of Stockbridge, Massachusetts (actually it might be in the little village of Glendale) in 1896 and commissioned architect Henry Bacon, with whom he had and would work on a number of memorial projects, to build first a studio (1897) and then a house on a bluff overlooking the Berkshire hills. While Saint-Gaudens remodeled his colonial dwelling (substantially), French opted to replace the existing colonial with a new Colonial Revival house.  Chesterwood is the only historic site that I have ever visited that is owned and operated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which received it from French’s daughter in 1969.  The Trust has not merely preserved the estate however; it is very much a living place, with modern sculptures placed artfully in the gardens (which are also beautiful, and designed by French himself, just as Saint-Gaudens designed the gardens at Cornish).

Daniel Chester French:  in his Chesterwood studio, 1907; the house and studio, tracks leading outside of the studio so French could work in natural light, and modern sculptures on the grounds.

French operated in the same milieu as Edith Wharton, whose Berkshire country house, The Mount, I visited in a previous post.  And as Edith, her house, and her circle (played by contemporary models, actors, writers and artists) are featured in this month’s Vogue, so too are French (played by artist Nate Lowman) and his Chesterwood studio.  Saint-Gaudens will have to wait for a later issue, but I can’t imagine a better setting for a photo shoot than Cornish.

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