William M.R. French

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William Merchant Richardson French
William M. R. French.jpg
Image of William M.R. French first director of the Art Institute of Chicago
Born(1843-10-01)October 1, 1843
DiedJune 3, 1914(1914-06-03) (aged 70)
EducationHarvard & Phillips Exeter Academy

William Merchant Richardson French (1843–1914) New Hampshire native and Harvard-educated engineer William M. R. French first came to Chicago in 1867 to pursue a career in civil engineering and landscaping. While working in Chicago, French garnered a national reputation for his lectures and articles on art subjects. In 1878, French became Secretary of The Chicago Academy of Design which was later reorganized as the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts (1879). The Chicago Academy of Fine Arts changed its name to The Art Institute of Chicago in (1882). French became the secretary of this new corporation and its first director in 1885, holding this position until his death in 1914.[1]



Parents: Mother, Anne Richardson (1811–1856), daughter of William Merchant Richardson (1774–1838), chief justice of New Hampshire. Father, Henry Flagg French (1813–1885) Siblings: Henriette Van Mater French Hollis (1839–1911), Sarah Flagg French Bartlett (1846–1883), and Daniel Chester French (1850–1931)

William French was born of pure New England heritage. The first French, Edward French came to the shores of New England in 1630 just 10 years after the establishment of the Plymouth Colony. His grandfathers on both sides of his family fought in the American Revolution. His father was a lawyer, Judge and agricultural expert who later would go on to found the Massachusetts agricultural college. His Father excelled in matters of farming and lead to a deep understanding of the early efforts in Civil engineering. William’s Mother Anne Richardson was the daughter of William Merchant Richardson of Chester New Hampshire. William Merchant Richardson was also the Chief Justice of New Hampshire.[2]

Early life[edit]

William or Will as he was known to his family was described as “a handsome boy, with black hair and brown eyes. Quick-witted and energetic, a born student, he was up among the first three or four in his class of forty. He was a very imaginative little boy, very resourceful, with a mind that went like lightning. He was forever urging his little brother on to a new activity.”[3] The French family would often spend the winter in Washington DC with family and a month each summer at the family farm in Chester. William lost his mother at the age of 13 in 1853 after several years of illness. Three years after Anne Richardson's death, on September 29, 1859, his Father married Pamela Mellen Prentice. In 1860 the family moved to Cambridge Massachusetts, where they took up residence next to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. During a snowstorm while living in Cambridge, Dan and Will sculpted a "mother lioness and her little cub" and Mr. Longfellow expressed this admiration with a large group of observers present.[4] In 1860 William began his studies at Harvard and graduated in 1864.


On September 9, 1879, he married Sarah Moody Lovejoy of Princeton, Ill She Died in 1881 leaving no children

Nine years later French married Alice Helm, Daughter of Henry Thomas Helm and Julia (Lathrop) Helm, of Chicago. They had two children Henry Helm French (1891-19??) and Prentiss French (1894-19??)


After the Chicago Fire destroyed his landscaping practice with H. W. S. Cleveland, French turned to the fine arts and began teaching at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.[5] In 1878, he became Secretary for the Chicago Academy of Design that later became the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts (1979), which was then reorganized as the Art Institute of Chicago (1882). With the name change to the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, French’s title changed from Secretary to Director, thus making him the first director of the Art Institute. He oversaw the daily operations of both the school and the museum, working closely with Board President Charles L. Hutchinson.

His investment in the Art Institute was so intimate that “he knew every stone in the structure, every collection in the galleries, every servant in his employ”, recalled a friend.[6] French also taught a course in Artistic Anatomy for many years. He was also a founder and charter member of the American Association of Museums.[7] French shepherded the transition of The Chicago Academy of Design from an Art's organization focused on teaching and the exhibition of local artist into a world class School and Museum. While the transition was contentious for some in the community the School never closed "It has not been closed for a single day"[8]

French and Board President Charles L. Hutchinson are credit with construction of two of the Art institute of Chicago buildings after the move from Pikes Building on state street in 1882. The organization purchased a lot on the southwest corner of Michigan Avenue and Van Buren Street for $45,000. The existing commercial building on that property was used for the organization's headquarters, and a new addition was constructed behind it to provide gallery space and to house the school's facilities By January 1885 the trustees recognized the need to provide additional space for the organization's growing collection, and to this end purchased the vacant lot directly south on Michigan Avenue. The commercial building was demolished, and these facilities opened to great fanfare in 1887.

With the announcement of the World's Columbian Exposition to be held in 1892–93, the Art Institute pressed for a building on the lakefront to be constructed for the fair, but to be used by the Institute afterwards. The city agreed, and the building was completed in time for the second year of the fair. In preparation for this new building French and Hutchinson traveled extensively. The pages of French's travel log are filled with drawings and notes including some potential Lions for the front of the building, notes on meetings with students in Pairs, as well as examination ideas.[9]

French’s death was sudden and shocked many. He was such a beloved figure in Chicago that so many people wished to attend his funeral service that a second service had to be added.[10] Lorado Taff's tribute states " To know Mr. French well was a liberal Education; to have been counted among his friends will be esteemed by some of us one of the most precious of life’s privileges.”[11]


  • 1843 Born : Exeter New Hampshire
  • 1856 Mother Dies French is only 13
  • 1859 Father marries Pamela Mellen Prentice
  • 1860 Moves to Cambridge MA, lives in rented house in the back of the Home of Longfellow
  • 1860 Attendants Harvard University
  • 1864 Graduates from Harvard
  • 1864 May to August Corporal in 12th Mass unattached
  • 1865 Cambridge,MA engineering office of J. Herbert She'd of Boston
  • 1867 Chicago,Illinois office of S.S. Greeley City Surveyor
  • 1868 Albany, Indiana Asst. Engineer for Ship Canal
  • 1869 Chicago,Illinois Asst. Engineer board of Public works
  • 1870 Chicago,Illinois independent office
  • 1871 Chicago,Illinois landscaping and engineering practice with H. W. S. Cleveland
  • 1874 Chicago,Illinois begins to lecture and write about Art
  • 1878 Chicago,Illinois Secretary Chicago Academy of Design
  • 1879 Marries Sarah Moody Lovejoy of Princeton, IL
  • 1881 Wife Sarah Moody Lovejoy dies
  • 1881 Moves to Minnesota in October
  • 1882 Moves to Massachusetts in summer of 1862
  • 1883 Supervising Architect of the Treasury until fall 1884
  • 1884 Returns to Chicago in October and becomes the first Director of The Art Institute of Chicago.
  • 1889 Visits Europe
  • 1890 Marries Alice Helm of Chicago
  • 1891 Son Henry Helm French was born
  • 1894 Son Prentiss French was born
  • 1914 French Dies in Chicago


  1. ^ "In Memoriam – William M.R. French (1843–1914)". The Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. IX (7): 158. June 1914.
  2. ^ Cresson, Margaret French. The Life of Daniel Chester French Journey into Fame. Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 1947.7–11. Print.
  3. ^ Cresson, Margaret French. The Life of Daniel Chester French Journey into Fame. Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 1947.14. Print.
  4. ^ Cresson, Margaret French. The Life of Daniel Chester French Journey into Fame. Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 1947.1. Print.
  5. ^ http://aic.onlineculture.co.uk/accessible/SpreadDetails.aspx?OrgID=24&LangID=1&o=1&BookID=8dec950a-8936-4a80-ac88-e15ddd334ec2&params=0
  6. ^ , L.M (1914). "William M. R. French". Art and Progress. 5 (9): 327–328. JSTOR 20561199.
  7. ^ http://www.artic.edu/research/art-institute-records/museum-records/office-director/william-mr-french-papers
  8. ^ The Chicago Tribune Sunday June 29, 1879
  9. ^ http://aic.onlineculture.co.uk/ttp/ttp.html?id=8dec950a-8936-4a80-ac88-e15ddd334ec2&type=book
  10. ^ https://archive.org/stream/jstor-4116333/4116333#page/n1/mode/2up
  11. ^ https://archive.org/stream/jstor-4116333/4116333#page/n3/mode/2up