Lincoln as careworn hero
How a sculptor gave us our vision of the 16th president
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To catch the eyes and minds of the movie-going public, the ad campaign for Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (which heads into Sunday’s Oscar ceremony with 12 nominations) carried an evocative photo of actor Daniel Day-Lewis in close-up profile, his head bowed, looking contemplative and weary. That image hits home with the American audience, connecting with our common perception of Abraham Lincoln as a pensive leader weighed down by the burdens he faced.
Yet this was not always how Americans saw Lincoln. In fact, we owe this vision to a 19th-century artist—one who fashioned a realistic and deeply human Lincoln and moved the nation to see the great leader in a new light.
In the two decades following the assassination of Lincoln, sculptors initially memorialized the fallen leader by emphasizing his role in a great historical moment, the emancipation of the slaves. He was often depicted as the Great Emancipator, like a god on high, bearing a sheaf of paper symbolizing the Emancipation Proclamation—holding it up, thrusting it forward, even pointing to it. One early statue shows Lincoln, arm outstretched out, guiding the people ahead. With the word “emancipation” across its base, The Freedmen’s Memorial in Boston’s Park Square has Lincoln standing with one hand atop a scroll on an ornamental column and the other beneficently posed above a crouching, unchained slave.
When Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the greatest American sculptor of his day, was commissioned in 1883 to create a memorial statue of the 16th president for Chicago’s Lincoln Park, he diverged from the prevailing heroic portrayal. He said he wanted to find the “inner” Lincoln—to capture the “character, the life, the emotions, and very soul of the man.”
To create a definitive likeness, Saint-Gaudens was the first sculptor to use the plaster casts of Lincoln’s life mask and hands, made before he was inaugurated. The statue, tellingly called “Abraham Lincoln: The Man,” portrays Lincoln newly risen from the chair of state. He steps forward, foot protruding beyond the pedestal; his head bowed, reflective and grave; his right hand behind his back; the left grasping his lapel. Saint-Gaudens gives us a vision of a man ready to counsel and direct the people, and invests him with an air of weary humanity. It is this image of a burdened yet determined leader that the movie ads echo.
This vision of Lincoln, unveiled to great acclaim in 1887, became a benchmark for the compassionate portrayal of Lincoln. The statue has since made it around the world; full-size casts were later installed in such sites as Parliament Square, London; Parque Lincoln, Mexico City; and across the river on the Cambridge Common. Saint-Gaudens created a total of five Civil War-era works, including a “seated” Lincoln and his famous memorial to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, across the street from the State House on Boston Common.
Over time, inevitably, events get their place and heroes are brought down to earth. Often artists can sense and express this evolution, and help us better grasp and live with these changing perceptions. Thus, initially, the Great Emancipator prevailed; later, the Statesman emerged. But both Saint-Gaudens and Spielberg sought to humanize Lincoln. Visitors can look Saint-Gaudens’s Lincoln in the eyes; with Spielberg’s movie, we get even closer, seeing the family man, the canny politician, the burdened leader, amid turmoil, driven by ideals. These portraits do not foster worship. Instead, we are made to admire, to sympathize, and to understand.
Jack Curtis is a writer and editor living in Brookline.