Man and Myth: Interpreting Statues of Lincoln
The monthly ArtSmart Roundtable brings together some of the best art-focused travel blogs to post on a common theme. This month we are focusing on Sculpture. We’ve got picks from all over the world and different time periods. Be sure to check out all the posts below!
Statues always remind me of monuments and I am fascinated by how cultures remember their heroes. Living in Washington DC, I am surrounded by monuments to great American men. A lot of artistic thought goes into these sculptures because subtle, and not so subtle, visual choices shape how we view and remember these famous people. I think no other figure is wrapped in as much symbolic meaning and myth as Abraham Lincoln. Whether in books, art, or movies, we continue to struggle with who this president was and how we remember him. Two statues in DC epitomize this debate for me.
The Southern states were in the process of seceding from the Union when Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was elected President. A self-taught man known for his wit and intellect, Lincoln fought and won the Civil War and abolished slavery in the US. His presidency was difficult; some of this actions have been criticized as unconstitutional. Yet Lincoln is still regarded as one of the greatest Presidents by scholars and one of the most beloved by Americans today. – So how to we remember and honor such a man?
The Righteous and Divine Leader: The Lincoln Memorial
On one end of the National Mall in Washington DC sits the majestic Lincoln Memorial which resembles a neoclassical temple. In the heart of the shrine is a 19 foot tall marble statue of a seated Lincoln completed by Daniel Chester French. The figure sits in a deep, high-armed chair. He is slouching somewhat but maintains a respectable pose.
The sculpture is filled with symbolism. Lincoln’s left hand is closed demonstrating military determination, while his right hand is open and relaxed highlighting the need for forgiveness and reconciliation after the Civil War. The banded reeds on the front of the chair allude to a unified America. While based on photographic evident, the deeply worn face of the President is supposed to convey the struggles he endured even while he looks with resolve toward the horizon.
The Lincoln Memorial was constructed between 1914 and 1922 in a time when the mythology of Lincoln was at its peak. The nation had moved past reconstruction in the South and looked to raise up Lincoln as a great unifier and leader. Victory assured, we are reminded to have faith that justice and freedom will win in the end as long as there are great, steadfast men such as Lincoln leading our nation. The memorial captures this spirit and elevates Lincoln to an irreproachable height. We feel this distance looking at the massive seated statue and in the sacred atmosphere shrouding the memorial. Much like an ancient Greek temple, this statue feels like the cult figure of a God receiving visitors. The artist has definitely captured “greatness” in this presentation of the 16th President.
A Man Who Struggled for His Country: The Old Soldier’s Home
Many people don’t realize it, but during the summer months the Lincoln family relocated from the swampy White House to the Old Soldier’s Home a few miles away. Set up on a hill, this hospital for recently wounded veterans of the Civil War caught the cooling breezes and was a respite for the President. He “commuted” by horseback daily to his office in the White House, no doubt using the travel time to think about policy, strategy, and the many concerns of a war time President.
There is an excellent, life-sized statue of Abraham Lincoln (with his iconic stove-pipe hat) and his horse just outside the Lincoln Cottage on the Old Soldier’s Home grounds. This bronze piece was completed in 2008 by Brooklyn artist Ivan Schwartz. The statue has sharp knuckles and visible veins in this hands. We see the characteristic wrinkles of Lincoln’s cheeks but also the crows feet and deep bags under his eyes true to photographs from that time. We can approach the statue, look Lincoln in the eyes (or not quite, given his height), and stand in the man’s proverbial presence. Watching a tour group come and go, several people put there arm around Lincoln for a photo.
The museum staff at the Lincoln Cottage do an excellent job explaining why Lincoln very much needed an escape from the White House. Here we do not see a man that was emboldened by some divine providence. Visitors realize that Lincoln didn’t know if the nation would survive and was trying as hard as he could to hold the country together – all while feeling the weight of every life lost. This statue shows Lincoln tired and seeking some respite from his burdens.
It’s important to understand that many great accomplishment in American and human history have not been easy, but they were achieved by normal people called to do great things. While Lincoln was himself a humble man, I wonder if this very informal statue does not honor his sacrifices, talents, dedication enough.
So which statue do you prefer?
For the rest of the April ArtSmart Roundtable, see:
- Erin of A Sense of Place – The Overlooked Reliquary
- Lesley of CultureTripper – Francis Bacon & Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty, AGO, Toronto
- Murissa of Wander Traveler – The History & Highlights of Peggy Guggenheim’s Sculpture Garden, Venice
- Alexandra of ArtTrav – 8 exquisite sculptures at the Archaeological Museum in Florence
- Pal & Lydian of Art Weekenders – Botero’s Voluminous Sculptures Around the World
- Ashley of No Onions, Extra Pickles – Rodin’s Thinker
- Jenna of A Sense of Place – A Sense of Place through Sculpture