Smithsonian American Art Museum
Abraham Lincoln: Lincoln Memorial
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), sixteenth president of the United States (between 1861 and 1865), was a revolutionary leader. Not only did Lincoln place the Declaration of Independence in a new light as a founding principle of the nation, but he made its central proposition — equality — an important principle of the Constitution. Of equal significance, Lincoln established that the national interest takes precedence over the states, and that the nation as an idea is sovereign. That concept became the living reality and identity of Americans.
Statue of Abraham Lincoln
By Daniel Chester French
Lincoln's democratic ideals and view of one nation above divisive principles are symbolized in the memorial dedicated to him. His significance to the country is demonstrated by the Memorial's site on the main east-west axis of the nation's capital, with its entrance directly in line with the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument. Placed at the west end of the Mall, the seated figure of Lincoln faces across a reflecting pool to the Washington Monument and the Capitol on the east.
The Memorial's success in conveying ideals of equality and unity has made it the focus for notable public protests and demonstrations. On Easter Sunday 1939 Marian Anderson sang at the Memorial to an audience of some seventy-five thousand people. The internationally acclaimed contralto received permission to perform at the Memorial after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her sing at Constitution Hall because of her race. On 17 May 1957 at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, Martin Luther King, Jr., standing in front of Lincoln's statue, introduced the issue of voting rights for blacks. On 28 August 1963 King returned to the Memorial and gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech to over two hundred thousand people assembled there in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. On 28 August 1993 close to seventy-five thousand marchers commemorated the thirtieth anniversary of the historic march by assembling at the Memorial to voice their concerns about jobs, peace, and justice in the United States.
Marchers assembled in front of the Lincoln Memorial on 28 August 1963 to hear Martin Luther King, Jr., speak.
Lincoln Memorial: Dedicated 30 May 1922
Architect: Henry Bacon (1866-1924)
Date of Building: Ground broken 191 completed 1921
Sculptor: Daniel Chester French (1850-1930)
Date of Sculpture: 1914-20
Medium: Exterior, white Colorado-Yule marble; statue, Georgia marble; interior walls, Indiana limestone; ceiling panels, Alabama marble saturated with paraffin to produce translucency; floor and wall base, pink Tennessee marble.
Height of Building: 24.37 meters (80 feet) above top of foundation.
Location: Washington, D.C., West Potomac Park (west end of the Mall), adjacent to Arlington Memorial Bridge
Looking at the Monument
Many people say they are unable to associate Lincoln floor a Greek temple, as they believe the Memorial to be, but to me nothing else would have been suitable, for the Greeks alone were able to express in their buildings and monuments and statues the highest attributes and the greatest beauty known to men. The Memorial tells you, as you approach it, just what manner of man you are come to pay homage to, his simplicity, his grandeur, and his power.
—Daniel Chester French
The Lincoln Memorial is a neoclassic American version of the Greek Doric temple with an attic, an upper portion based on the Roman temple. Unlike ancient temples, however, its main facade and entrance are on the long rather than the short side, and the viewer must ascend a steep flight of stairs to enter the building. Creating a majestic entranceway, the grand stairway leads viewers to approach in a reverential and formal manner.
Greek Ionic columns divide the building's interior into three chambers, with the central chamber holding the statue of Lincoln created
by Daniel Chester French (1850 -1930) . The artist said he wanted the sculpture to convey "the mental and physical strength of the
great war President and his confidence in his ability to carry the thing through to a successful finish."
Carved from twenty-eight identical blocks of Georgia marble, the figure is massive (5.8 meters [19 feet] high, from head to foot) and is seated in a large chair placed on a very high pedestal. The thronelike chair has posts carved with fasces, the Roman symbol of the state's authority represented by a bundle of rods bound with cord.
Lincoln's pose is relaxed. His coat is unbuttoned, and his arms rest on the arms of the chair. Believing that hands most express personality, French depicted Lincoln with a clenched left hand to symbolize strength and determination and a relaxed right hand to refer to his calm nature. With a contemplative but intense expression, Lincoln's head inclines slightly as if he were listening.
In an eloquent description, the historian Merrill D. Peterson writes: "The statue quickly became the nation's foremost sculptured icon. The reverence millions upon millions of viewers have felt before it is a function partly of the templed space, partly of its elevation as if upon an altar, and partly of the compelling figure itself. Lincoln sits gracefully, majestically, upon the august chair of state.... The hands are prominent. They are powerful, and they suggest the physical and mental determination that suffuses the entire figure. Although the body is in repose, there is tension in the limbs, the trunk, and the head. The face is strong, yet benign, with a trace of sorrow; the lips are closed, and the eyes gaze forward as if in calm but earnest prayer. People have thought to give a name to the statue, `Lincoln the Triumphant,' for instance. But what some see as triumph other observers see as resignation; what some see as toughness, others see as tenderness; and what some see as majesty, others see as solemnity. In truth, the statue enshrined the man."
On the wall directly behind the statue is inscribed: "In this temple/As in the hearts of the people/For whom
he saved the Union/The memory of Abraham Lincoln/ Is enshrined forever."
Famous speeches by Lincoln are carved on the side chamber walls. The Gettysburg Address, on the south wall, was delivered by Lincoln on 19 November 1863, at the dedication of the cemetery of soldiers slain at the Battle of Gettysburg, a turning point in the Civil War. On the north wall, Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, delivered 4 March 1865, may be the greatest political utterance in American life. Historians and politicians agree that no other American speech has approached the combined moral power and historical realism found in these words.
Above the speeches are allegorical murals by Jules Guerin: The mural above the Gettysburg Address shows the Angel of Truth freeing a slave, flanked by figures representing Justice and the Law, and Immortality. Above the Second Inaugural Address is a mural allegorically depicting the unity of North and South, with figures also representing Fraternity and Charity.
Lincoln Memorial by Henry Bacon.
allegorical (al uh GORE uh kul), personifying some abstract idea.
attic (AT ik), low story or decorative wall above the main cornice of a building; when capitalized, refers to ancient Athens.
divisive (di VIE siv), creating dissension or disunity.
Doric (DOR ik), earliest and simplest of the five classical orders of architecture developed in Greece and altered by the Romans. The Greek Doric order consists typically of fluted columns having no base and plain saucer-shaped capitals.
fasces (FASS ease) (usually singular), bundle of rods containing an ax with the blade projecting, carried in processions before Roman officials as an emblem of official authority.
frieze (FREEZE), plain or decorated horizontal band encircling a room or building.
icon (EYE CON), image of a sacred person.
Ionic (eye AHN ick), an order of classical Greek architecture marked by capitals with two opposed scroll-like spirals and fluted columns resting on bases with moldings.
neoclassic, revival of classical forms.
pedestal (PED uh stuhl), base on which a statue rests.
reverential (rev uh WREN shul), expressing profound awe, respect, and often love.
Detail of Lincoln Memorial attic frieze.
Every state in the Union is represented on the Memorial. On the porch surrounding the building are thirty-six Doric columns symbolizing states in the Union at the time of Lincoln's death. Names of those states appear on the horizontal band directly above the columns — known as a frieze — with the dates they ratified the Constitution. A second frieze on the attic wall crowning the structure holds names of all forty-eight states comprising the Union in 1922, when the Memorial was completed, and their dates of admission.
One mistake occurs in the dates. Ohio was admitted to the Union in 1803, not the year 1802, as indicated on the frieze. A plaque on the terrace notes that Alaska and Hawaii were added to the Union in 1959.
When Henry Bacon (1866-1924) was selected as the Memorial's architect, he chose an academic Greek revival style. The Greek revival style is considered this country's first national style of architecture. Between around 1820 and 1845, Americans spontaneously adopted the style for banks, colleges, state capitols, and government buildings as well as their homes. Lincoln's contemporaries thought the style was "democratic" because it symbolized not only the direct democracy of Athens but also a sense of openness.
The nation's founders had entertained a very different view — that Athens' majority rule (which included non-property owners other than women and slaves) threatened the sanctity of private property. Debates over the adoption of the Constitution always invoked Rome's mixed government — where power followed property — rather than Athens' popular sovereignty. It is revealing that George Washington completed his home in the form of a Roman villa while Lincoln added Greek revival elements to the house he bought.
After 1845 other architectural styles supplanted Greek revivalism, but during the years between 1890 and 1930 academic classical revival styles again came into favor — at the same time as the United States was becoming a world power and architects were asking how to translate "American democracy" into architectural form. One of the less common styles, the academic Greek preserved the Greek revival's association with liberty. The Lincoln Memorial is considered a premier example because it was a new and original combination of classical elements.
1. The Gettysburg Address contains three parallel sets of three images each, all intricately interwoven:
Does the Memorial contain the same sets of images? Explain.
2. Henry Bacon's plans for a modified Greek temple stirred up heated controversy. The most vocal critics complained that Bacon's design was not appropriate for a down-to-earth man of the people. Considering Lincoln's background, his hard life and work on the frontier, his law practice and politicking, and his ideals, was an ancient Greek temple the most appropriate model for the building? If not, what model would have been more appropriate?
3. Do you think that Daniel Chester French's decision to portray Lincoln as the "great War President" was the best theme for this memorial? Why or why not? Does the statue convey French's wish to depict "the mental and physical strength of the great war President and his confidence in his ability to carry the thing through to a successful finish"? How are these ideas expressed in the pose and gestures of the figure and in the facial expression? What alternative interpretations could French have considered?
4. Compare and contrast the Lincoln Memorial with the Jefferson Memorial. Are there any similarities? How do you account for the differences?
5. The Civil War established the supremacy of the federal government over the states and that the states do not have the right to secede from the Union. In what way does the Memorial refer to the relationship of states to the nation?
6. Do you think that the Lincoln Memorial translates "American democracy" into architectural form? How? Can you explain why similar classical elements were adopted for the architecture of countries with totalitarian government dictatorships? Can you think of an architectural style today that symbolizes "American democracy"?
1. Write a composition.
Walt Whitman (1819-1892) wrote the poem "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" (1865) in honor of Lincoln following his death. In the poem Whitman mourns the death of Lincoln, whom he viewed as a symbol of the American democratic ideal. In a composition of not more than seven paragraphs, compare the poem with the Memorial. Analyze the overall mood and images or details conveying the tone. How are the emotional effects of the poem different from those of the monument?
2. Write a report comparing and contrasting the Memorial with the classical Greek Parthenon at Athens (448-432 B.C.) and the Hellenistic tomb monument of Mausolus at Halicarnassus (353 B.C.). (Illustrations can be found in A. W. Lawrence, Greek Architecture [Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1957].) Discuss similarities and differences in purpose, design, and site. What elements of the Memorial resemble elements of these ancient monuments?
3. Compare and contrast French's seated Lincoln with the bronze standing Lincoln (1917) by George Grey Barnard (1863-1938) in Cincinnati, Ohio (illustrated in Merrill D. Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory [New York: Oxford University Press, 1994]). Write a paragraph discussing similarities and differences.
4. Working in groups, prepare oral reports discussing how the Lincoln Memorial would have to be altered if George Washington replaced Abraham Lincoln. How would the structure reflect Washington's life and principles? Would you include speeches? Which ones? Why? What theme would you select for Washington's statue? What would the statue look like?
5. Write an article for a foreign magazine. Not far from the Lincoln Memorial, The John F. Kennedy Memorial Center for the Performing Arts (1971) (designed by architect Edward Durrell Stone [1902-1978]) associates the two presidents by adopting the general shape and layout of the Lincoln Memorial and by presenting on its outer terrace walls speeches and writings by Kennedy carved in Roman lettering identical to that used for the Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address in the Lincoln Memorial. The Kennedy Center, however, uses concrete, steel, plate glass, and colorful effects, and serves a very different function. Imagine that you are the American correspondent for a foreign magazine (choose the country of publication), and write an article comparing the two presidents, justifying or criticizing associations made by the Kennedy Center and analyzing the extent to which the design and function of the two monuments reflect differences between the two leaders or between the periods during which they were built.
6. Design a monument commemorating one twentieth-century democratic leader who has confronted great crises. How will you be influenced by the individual's formative experiences, beliefs, temperament, handling of affairs under pressure, and so forth? How will the monument reflect the person's ideals? How will you emphasize qualities that made the person an effective leader?
7. Read the "I Have a Dream" speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. In an editorial of at least four paragraphs hypothetically written for The Washington Post on the day after the speech, discuss whether the U.S. Capitol would have been more appropriate than the Lincoln Memorial as the site for King to deliver his speech.
8. Construct a chronological chart that shows when the states were admitted to the Union. Write dates in Roman numerals. Knowing Roman numerals is necessary for reading dates on many public sculptures and buildings, especially nineteenth-century works. The exercise also provides rudimentary knowledge of how the Union developed.
Henry Bacon (1866-1924)
Henry Bacon was born in Watseca, Illinois, and studied at the University of Illinois. He worked as a draftsman at the architectural firm of Chamberlin and Whidden, Boston, and then joined McKim, Mead and White in New York City from 1891 to 1897. After traveling on a two-year scholarship to Europe, he established his own architectural office in 1898 in New York City. Bacon executed more than a hundred monuments and memorials. In many of his projects he collaborated with sculptors, including Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Daniel Chester French. He designed French's summer home and studio, "Chesterwood" (1897-1901) (in the Berkshires, Massachusetts), and the two worked together on more than fifty projects, including the Melvin Memorial (1906-08) (Concord, Massachusetts) and the Trask Memorial Fountain (1913-15) (Saratoga, New York). For his achievement in the Lincoln Memorial, the American Institute of Architects awarded Bacon its Gold Medal in 1923. At the time of his death, he had been proposed as the designer of a United States Supreme Court building and the National Gallery of Art.
Daniel Chester French (1850-1930)
Daniel Chester French was raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his family moved in the 1860s from Exeter, New Hampshire. His father was a lawyer and at one time assistant secretary of the Treasury. French briefly attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1867. His artistic career began with modeling busts and reliefs of friends. In 1873 he was commissioned to sculpt the Minute Manfor Concord, Massachusetts, which established his career. To deepen his artistic knowledge, French went to Italy, where he worked in the Florence studio of Thomas Ball (1818-1911). Returning to the United States in 1876, French executed sculptural groups for federal buildings in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Boston. Less than a decade later, he began a series of public monuments that gained him a national reputation. The Milmore Memorial (1889-93) (Forest Hills Cemetery, Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts) and the Republic for the World's Columbian Exposition (1893) in Chicago placed French at the forefront of American sculpture. Three major commissions in the first decade of the twentieth century are among his most innovative public sculptures: Columbia University's Alma Mater (1900-03) (New York City), the Melvin Memorial (1906-08) (Concord, Massachusetts), and the standing Abraham Lincoln (1909-12) (Lincoln, Nebraska).
The indispensable source is Merrill D. Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), which traces the changing image of Lincoln through time. For French's sculpture, see Michael Richman, Daniel Chester French: An American Sculptor (Washington: National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1976). The impact of Lincoln's ideas is the subject of James M. McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), and Gary Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992). An excellent fictional account of the Battle of Gettysburg is Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels (New York: Ballantine Books, 1974), a story told from the viewpoints of Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet and some of the other men who fought there. The film Gettysburg, directed by Robert Maxwell and released by Turner Productions in 1993, is based on Shaara's novel.