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Hands Of An Artist: Daniel French's Lincoln Memorial

He's on our pennies, our $5 bills and our postage stamps.

But the definitive image of Abraham Lincoln is the statue at the Lincoln Memorial, where so many crucial moments in the country's history have taken place.

Soprano Marian Anderson sang there in 1939 after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her perform in their hall. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream Speech" there in 1963. And Beyonce sang there in January to honor President Obama's inauguration.

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

A Monument's Conception

In commemoration of the bicentennial of the 16th president's birth, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., has rolled out a special exhibition called "Designing the Lincoln Memorial: Daniel Chester French and Henry Bacon," which will be on view for the rest of this year.

French, called the Dean of American Sculpture in the 20th century, didn't do much sketching. His first ideas were worked in clay, then in plaster. The National Gallery show follows that process, offering a look at the surprisingly small model French made for his monumental sculpture of the seated Lincoln.

French created the memorial with architect Henry Bacon, who designed the columned marble temple in which Lincoln sits. The two wrestled with size throughout the eight years they worked on the project.

The government initially contracted for a 10-foot-high sculpture. But, says art historian Donna Hassler, when the memorial was under construction, French and Bacon took a 10-foot model of the sculpture to the National Mall and realized the scale was all wrong. They took photographic enlargements to the site, and the finished statue soared to 19 feet, placed on an 11-foot pedestal.

"This is an iconic statue, one of the most recognizable statues in the entire world," says Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "It puts him in a setting of great majesty in this temple that honors his legacy. It's an almost spiritual moment to see French's statue of Abraham Lincoln."

The Statue Behind The Statue

At the National Gallery, you can get up close and personal with the smaller, plaster model for a more intimate experience.

"You have a sense of the man versus the monument here," says Hassler, who is the director of Chesterwood, French's home and studio in Stockbridge, Mass., where the plaster model was made. In plaster, the details are much clearer, she says.

"If you look at the buttons on the jacket, there's one button standing up because the lapel caught it. It's much more animated on this scale. You might not even see that at the monument itself."

French studied casts made of Lincoln's hands when he was alive, says Hassler, but ultimately did not use them as models for the project.

"The hands are clenched, and French thought that wasn't appropriate for this particular monument," she says. "So he ended up casting his own hands in the position where he felt they would rest on the chair."

So in the Lincoln sculpture, you can literally see the hands of the artist. Marks from French's chisels give the feel of a work in progress. And in plaster, the mythic, marble Lincoln is humanized; apprehended in new ways.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: April 17, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
The audio version and earlier Web versions of this story said, "He's on our pennies, our dollar bills ..." Lincoln's portrait is on the $5 bill.
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Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.