Hands Of An Artist: Daniel French's Lincoln Memorial Daniel Chester French's solemn white marble sculpture of Lincoln has presided over history since its 1922 dedication. A new exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., looks at its creation.

Hands Of An Artist: Daniel French's Lincoln Memorial

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Take a look at newspapers from the 1860s, and you see that Abraham Lincoln was vilified in his lifetime. He was murdered after his assassination, and he's much with us these days as the bicentennial of the 16th president's birth is observed. The anniversary is being celebrated in plaster at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., as NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg reports.

SUSAN STAMBERG: He's on our pennies, our dollar bills, on postage stamps; but the definitive image of Abraham Lincoln, the iconic one, is the statue at the Lincoln Memorial, where so many crucial moments in this country's history have taken place.

POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: Lincoln's portrait is on the $5 bill.

(Soundbite of "My Country This of Thee" performed by Beyonce)

Ms. BEYONCE KNOWLES (Singer): (Singing) And crown thy good with brotherhood...

STAMBERG: Beyonce sang there in January on the Sunday before the Inauguration.

(Soundbite of "My Country This of Thee" performed by Marian Anderson)

Ms. MARIAN ANDERSON (Singer): (Singing) My country this of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee we sing.

STAMBERG: Marian Anderson sang there in 1939, when the Daughters of the American Revolution denied her their performance hall.

Reverend MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: Five score years ago...

STAMBERG: The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. spoke there on a day of dreams and hope.

Rev. KING: A great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

STAMBERG: Presiding over all the words, all the music, so many public events and gatherings since it was dedicated in 1922, a solemn, white, marble sculpture of Abraham Lincoln, created by a mostly self-taught New England artist named Daniel Chester French.

Ms. DEBORAH CHATNER (Curator at National Gallery of Art): He thought with his hands.

STAMBERG: Daniel Chester French was called the dean of American sculpture in the 20th century. Thinking with his hands, French worked his early ideas out in clay, then in plaster. On display at the National Gallery of Art right now, a plaster model that French made for his monumental sculpture of the seated Lincoln.

He looks so small.

Ms. CHATNER: Small?

STAMBERG: Well, yes, on the National Mall, the great emancipator is 19 feet tall. This plaster model is smaller, and curator Deborah Chatner says that French's initial sketches were smaller still.

Ms. CHATNER: Little bitty sketch, maybe 8 inches tall, 10 inches tall, and then a 3-foot version, and then this version, which actually has been called the 7-foot version, but we measured it. We said, it's 68 and an eighth inches, so it's a 6-foot version.

STAMBERG: So you can see Lincoln growing up - as a sculpture, anyway, in this exhibition. Designing the Lincoln Memorial, Daniel Chester French and Henry Bacon. Bacon was the architect who created the columned marble temple in which Lincoln sits. The men wrestled with size. The government contracted for a 10-foot-high sculpture. Art historian Donna Hassler says when the memorial was under construction, French and Bacon brought a model of the 10-foot sculpture to the Mall and realized the scale was all wrong.

Ms. DONNA HASSLER (Art Historian): They did enlargements, photographic, enlargements which they took to the sight.

STAMBERG: And eventually, the finished statue soared up to 19 feet, placed on an 11-foot pedestal above several tiers of broad steps - monumental, heroic.

Mr. RICHARD MOE (President, National Trust for Historic Preservation): This is an iconic statue. I think it's one of the most recognizable statues in the entire world.

STAMBERG: This is Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Mr. MOE: It puts him in a setting of great majesty, in this temple that honors his legacy and of course, with the Gettysburg Address, the second inaugural flanking him at either side. I mean, this is really - it's an almost spiritual moment to go see this Daniel Chester French statue of Abraham Lincoln.

STAMBERG: On the National Mall, anyway. At the National Gallery, you can get really close to the smaller plaster model and have a different, more intimate experience.

Ms. HASSLER: You have a sense of the man, versus the monument, here.

STAMBERG: Donna Hassler again. She is director of Chesterwood, Daniel Chester French's home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. That's where this model was made. In plaster, details are much clearer - the creases in Lincoln's vest...

Ms. HASSLER: If you look at the buttons on the jacket, there's one button standing up because the lapel caught the button. It's much more animated on this scale than in the plain, old, marble sculpture.

STAMBERG: And the hands, so expressive, one at rest, the other a gentle fist. Hassler says Daniel Chester French studied casts of the president's hands made when Lincoln was alive.

Ms. HASSLER: The hands are clenched, and French had difficulty with looking at the hands, thinking that wasn't appropriate for this particular monument. So he ended up casting his own hands in the position where he felt they would rest on the chair.

STAMBERG: So in the Lincoln sculpture, you can literally see the hands of the artist. There's a liveliness to the plaster. Photographs of the model are at npr.org. Marks from French's chisels give the feel of a work in progress. And in plaster, the mythic marble Lincoln is humanized, it's apprehended in new ways.

INSKEEP: Susan Stamberg, it's amazing to think about this guy who's called Long Abe, who was famous for being tall - to think about getting longer and longer.

STAMBERG: Longer yet, yes. There are other little factoids like them. These men wrestled with each facet of creating this monument. The lighting was originally supposed to be from natural sources, some down from the ceiling, and some up from the reflecting pool, which stands in front of the memorial. When dedication day came in 1922, French was aghast at how badly that lighting worked. Because it was as if - on Halloween, you know how you take a flashlight, you hold it underneath your chin, and the light comes up?

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah, yeah, a little suspicious, a little sinister, yes.

STAMBERG: That's what happened to Abe Lincoln with that natural lighting. So they went back to Congress, got artificial lighting put in, and it became the Lincoln Memorial that we know.

INSKEEP: NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg, telling us about the Lincoln Memorial, which now seems to glow. Susan, thanks very much.

Ms. ANDERSON (Singing) My country tis of thee, sweet land of liberty...

INSKEEP: The exhibit designing the Lincoln Memorial will be at the National Gallery in Washington until early next year.

Ms. ANDERSON: (singing) ...for thee we sing. Land where my fathers died, land of my pilgrims' pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

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