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the Readings


Inquiry Question

Historical Context


Reading 1
Reading 2



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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: Working on the Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial

The Lincoln Memorial was planned as the anchor for a western extension of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., built on land reclaimed from the Potomac River. For this important location, French's good friend Henry Bacon designed a huge, white marble temple. From the beginning, Bacon's plans called for a statue of Lincoln to be displayed within the temple, and he wanted that statue to be the work of Daniel Chester French. After some delay, French did receive the commission and began work on the Abraham Lincoln. The first step was to prepare a "maquette." This small, three-dimensional, clay sketch, about 7 inches high, showed French's proposed design for the project. "It should interest you to know," wrote French to Bacon in mid-1915, "that I am making sketch models for the statue of Lincoln. At present I am feeling very much encouraged, but I am suspicious of my enthusiasms."¹ By the end of October his first model was finished. He modeled the head on photographs and on the death mask made after Lincoln's assassination. Worried about the hands on the arms of the chair, he studied photographs to see how Lincoln usually placed his hands. French even made casts of his own hands for reference.

After the concept was approved, he created a larger working model, also in clay. This was used to work out the positioning of the figure and the selection of appropriate clothing, drapery, or other ornamentation. French also created a half-sized model, which was used to decide on surface treatments and small details. These models were enlarged by French's assistants. As the scale of the models increased, the forms were refined and adjusted; what might seem to be an insignificant detail in the sketch might be a problem that needed to be corrected when the sculpture was enlarged to many times its original size. The half size model was enlarged to full size by professional stone carvers, but French himself took care of the finishing touches. French worked on the project for nine years. When the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in 1922, he was 72 years old.

Throughout his work on the Lincoln statue, French worried that the size of Bacon's building would overwhelm anything but a massive sculpture. The eight-foot-high model that he brought to Washington to test was dwarfed. He had gigantic photographs made--14 to 18 feet high--and put together on wooden frameworks. Each photograph was set up in turn. Only the largest seemed appropriate for the space. From the originally projected 10 feet, the completed statue grew to 19 feet, placed on a base 11 feet tall.

French turned to the six Piccirilli brothers in New York City for the carving of the final, monumental figure. He had worked with them before and knew that they would make sure that the finished statue replicated his model exactly. French was abroad when the statue was installed in the Lincoln Memorial, but upon his return he hurried to see it. He was nervous; this statue was perhaps the most important of his long career. He wrote, "I was very much relieved to see that it was not too large for its surroundings. I got into rather a panic about this for it didn't seem that a statue that large could fit into any place without being too colossal."²

French was, however, horrified at the effect of the lighting on the statue. Changes to the skylights had eliminated shadows that were essential to French's design, transforming Lincoln's expression into a blank stare. The lighting was still not right when the Lincoln Memorial was officially dedicated on Memorial Day, 1922. The dignitaries and the public did not notice. They found the building and the figure magnificent. The lighting problem was not solved until 1926, when floodlights were installed to shine down on the statue from above.³ French was finally satisfied with his work.

Widely acclaimed when it was first installed, the Abraham Lincoln has awed visitors ever since. French's daughter told a story about one special visitor. French was standing in the shadows of the east chamber one evening working on the lighting. He saw a limousine draw up in front of the memorial. With effort, an old man emerged from the vehicle and, with his head bent, slowly made his way up the steps. As he approached the statue he took off his hat and, resting on his cane, sank slowly to his knees. For a long time he remained kneeling, his head bowed, as if recalling memories that others had forgotten. Then Robert Todd Lincoln, the 83-year-old son of Abraham Lincoln, rose, walked down the steps, and disappeared into the night.4

Questions for Reading 3

1. What is a "maquette"? How was it useful for the sculptor, for the client?

2. Why do you think the sculptor made models of his work in so many different sizes? Which of them do you think could be considered an "original"?

3. What did French do to ensure that the Abraham Lincoln was an accurate portrayal? Do you think these steps were necessary? Why or why not?

4. How do you think French might have felt as he watched Lincoln's son kneel before the statue of his father?

Reading 3 was adapted from Polly M. Rettig, "Daniel Chester French Home and Studio," (County, Massachusetts) National Historic Landmark documentation, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1974; Michael Richman, Daniel Chester French, An American Sculptor (Washington, D.C.: The Preservation Press, 1976), and Willadene Price, "Daniel Chester French: The Artist as Historian," Social Education, Vol. 46, No.1 (January, 1982). Information on process adapted from George Gurney, Sculpture in the Federal Triangle (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985).

¹ Daniel Chester French to Henry Bacon, May 29, 1915; cited in Michael Richman, Daniel Chester French: An American Sculptor (Washington, D.C.: The Preservation Press, 1976), 175-176.
² Daniel Chester French to Newton Mackintosh, February 13, 1920; cited in Richman, 182.
³ Wayne Craven,
Sculpture in America (Newark DE: University of Delaware Press, 1984), 405.
4 Willadene Price, "Daniel Chester French: The Artist as Historian,"
Social Education, Vol. 46, No. 1 (January 1982), 60.


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