A familiar face, only smaller

Visitors to the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum encounter a sight that is both new and yet immediately familiar when they step inside—an artist’s model of the famous statue in Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Memorial.

Like its much larger cousin in the nation’s capital, the model is the work of Daniel Chester French, one of the most admired sculptors of the early twentieth century.  The Lincoln Memorial Commission, created in 1911 and chaired by William Howard Taft, selected French to execute the statue for the Greek temple-style memorial building designed by Henry Bacon. French and Bacon had previously collaborated on a bronze monument to Lincoln in Nebraska.

The statue’s face is reminiscent of the photographic portraits of Lincoln from 1863 and 1864.  The commission originally planned for the full-size work to be in bronze, but French persuaded them to use marble instead, which adds to the classical feel of the memorial as a whole.

One other classical influence in French’s work is visible in the pillars supporting the seat on which Lincoln sits.  These pillars are shaped like fasces, bundles of rods used to denote strength, unity, and power since the days of the Roman Republic. Italian Fascists adopted this emblem because it evoked these same ideas, and in fact this was the source of the name “fascism,” but the same symbol continues to be used by many government entities and other organizations here in the U.S. and abroad.

The Lincoln Memorial was actually the subject of some controversy when it was first conceived.  Some critics thought a Greek temple with a monumental icon was too grandiose as a tribute to a man of the people who emerged from a humble background. When it was dedicated, though, it quickly became a popular D.C. destination, and today French’s statue is one of the most recognizable works of American art.

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