Designs for the Great Emancipator

Exhibit Surveys Making of Lincoln Memorial

Posted March 3, 2009 at 3:08pm

For those who would like a closer look at the Lincoln Memorial, here’s an opportunity. To celebrate Lincoln’s 200th birthday, the National Gallery of Art is presenting a new exhibit, “Designing the Lincoln Memorial: Daniel Chester French and Henry Bacon,— which shows the final model of the statue of Abraham Lincoln used for the memorial.

“We were given the opportunity to borrow the plaster model used in creating the monumental Lincoln sculpture. It just seemed like an opportune time to exhibit it,— said Deborah Chother, assistant curator of British and American paintings at the National Gallery of Art.

Creating a statue of that size is “a monumental procedure,— Chother said. “When you come to see the plaster you can see the tool marks.— Because the statue is “a little rougher,— she said, “visitors get a sense of the creative process.—

French, an American sculptor, began working with clay models to create the statue. Later he switched to plaster, repeatedly changing the pose and settings. He paid special attention to the president’s hands. A mural showing the 19-foot-high statue looms over the plaster model, displayed in a gallery of the museum’s West Wing.

The statue is French’s most famous piece. He studied in Florence, Italy, and was first recognized for his “Minute Man— statue in Concord, Mass.

The way Lincoln’s role as uniter of the nation broadened to include his image as a “friend of the common man— is explained on wall panels in the exhibit. The emphasis is on his role as the Great Emancipator, and the exhibit describes people who have stood in front of the Lincoln statue, spreading messages or fighting for a cause, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream— speech.

The exhibit also has a model of the Lincoln Memorial itself made by Bacon, an American architect.

French worked with Bacon for about 25 years before starting on the Lincoln Memorial, which was finished in 1922. Bacon used the wooden model on display when he presented the design to the Lincoln Memorial Committee.

While working at the prominent architectural firm McKim, Mead and White, Bacon won a scholarship to study Roman and Greek architecture. The Lincoln Memorial was his final project, and the project received a gold medal from the American Institute of Architects by President Warren Harding.

“I think particularly for people in Washington it feels as if it has always been there. But it hasn’t. It is the creation of an artist,— Chother said.

The exhibit will run until Feb. 12, 2010.