When Daniel Chester French began his life as a sculptor, the most famous American public monuments were portrait figures and equestrian statues, installed in the rotundas of public buildings and in parks. The Lincoln Memorial, executed at the end of his career, reflects the expansion of the role of both the artist and architect. Both figures had become dramatists of the nation’s core meaning, its most basic values, commitments, and memories.
Each year, over four million visitors make the pilgrimage to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. They walk along the reflecting pool and up a great flight of stairs into an immense temple. There, they confront an enormous seated marble figure who radiates dignity and wisdom. The Lincoln Memorial was dedicated on May 30, 1922; originally proposed two years after Lincoln’s assassination, the memorial to the Savior of the Union had taken half a century to realize.
Architect Henry Bacon wanted to create a sacred and ceremonial space, using architecture, sculpture and legacy of Lincoln’s own words. Surrounding the temple is a colonnade of thirty-six Doric columns, one for each state of the Union at the time of Lincoln’s death. On the walls above the colonnade are forty-eight memorial festoons, one for each state at the time the Memorial was dedicated. Once inside the sacred space of the interior, the focus is on French’s statue of Lincoln, nineteen feet high and carved of Georgia marble. Dramatic in its impact, Lincoln appears caught in a deep, pensive moment, silent and strong. Flanking the central space are two antechambers in which the words of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and the Gettysburg Address are carved in stone and accompanied by allegorical paintings by Jules Guerin. Bacon felt the impact of Lincoln’s words would be stronger than a visual representation of the Civil War.
Beginning in 1915, French made at least four models for The Lincoln Memorial. For research, he drew on Lincoln’s portrait by Matthew Brady’s studio and a biography, along with casts of hthe president’s face and hands made by Leonard Volk when Lincoln was still alive. While the Memorial was under construction, French brought colossal photographic enlargements to the site and, along with Bacon, decided that nineteen feet was the appropriate size. He made final corrections on the seven-foot model before it was sent to the renowned Piccirilli brothers, who operated a spacious carving studio in New York City’s Bronx burrough; the carving from twenty-eight blocks of Georgia marble took over a year, with French himself making the final adjustments.