Column: Saint-Gaudens’ Deeply Human Lincoln

  • Augustus Saint-Gaudens with the full-size clay model of the Standing Lincoln, in his Cornish studio in 1886.

For the Valley News
Friday, July 01, 2016

“Lincoln’s coming back to Cornish,” teased the website for Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site earlier this year. To be less playful, and more precise, that’s the monumental sculpture, Abraham Lincoln: The Man (also known as Standing Lincoln) by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. He is now in the park. On June 26, a new casting of Standing Lincoln was duly installed and feted to mark the golden anniversary of the park’s founding and the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. And, as expected, he looks magnificent. As if he never left.

In the months leading up to the installation, the website also carried an observation from park Superintendent Rick Kendall, “The Standing Lincoln is in many ways the reason we have a national park in Cornish today.” The only national park in the state.

Here’s why:

Saint-Gaudens wanted the perfect model for Lincoln’s tall and lanky body. When a friend suggested that there were many “Lincoln-shaped men” in Cornish, Saint-Gaudens established a summer home and studio here, and soon discovered a 6-foot-4-inch farmer to serve as his model. It would be the first monument he would complete in New Hampshire.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the Standing Lincoln’s local claim to fame. But speaking artistically as well as historically, Standing Lincoln is best known for its realistic and deeply human portrayal of Lincoln as a pensive leader weighed down by the burdens he faced. It’s considered the best American portrait statue of the 19th century. Saint-Gaudens’ weary yet heroic portrayal of the fallen president moved the nation to see the great leader in a new light.

In the two decades following the assassination of Lincoln, sculptors initially memorialized the fallen leader by emphasizing his role in a great historical moment, the emancipation of the slaves. He was often depicted as the Great Emancipator, like a god on high, bearing a sheaf of paper symbolizing the Emancipation Proclamation — holding it up, thrusting it forward, even pointing to it. With the word “emancipation” across its base, The Freedman’s Memorial (1876) in Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Park, for example, shows Lincoln with one hand atop a scroll on an ornamental column and the other beneficently posed above a crouching, unchained slave. (This monument was paid for completely by freed slaves.)

When Saint-Gaudens, the greatest American sculptor of his day, was commissioned to create a memorial statue of the 16th president for Chicago’s Lincoln Park, he diverged from the prevailing heroic portrayal. He said he wanted to find the “inner” Lincoln — to capture the “character, the life, the emotions, and very soul of the man.”

To create a definitive likeness, Saint-Gaundens was the first sculptor to use the plaster casts of Lincoln’s life mask and hand, made before his first inauguration.

Titled Abraham Lincoln: The Man by the sculptor, the statue portrays Lincoln newly risen from the ornate Chair of State. He steps forward, foot protruding beyond the pedestal; his head bowed, reflective and grave; his right hand behind his back; the left grasping his lapel. Saint-Gaudens gives us a vision of a man ready to counsel and direct the people, and invests him with an air of careworn humanity.

When the bronze was unveiled in Chicago on a rainy day Saturday, Oct. 22, 1887, one critic wrote, “Together Mr. Saint-Gaudens and Mr. White (the famous architect, Stanford White, who designed the unique plaza in which the statue stands) have given us a monument which is the most precious the country yet possesses; which is not only our best likeness of Abraham Lincoln, but our finest work of monumental art.” The monument’s lofty impression led a Chicago sculptor to note, “One stands before it and feels himself in the very presence of America’s greatest soul.”

Burke Wilkinson in Uncommon Clay: The Life and Work of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, ends his Standing Lincoln chapter with this observation, “It was as if the true Abraham Lincoln had never been seen before. From that time forward, he would be seen no other way.” Standing Lincoln is indeed back — where he belongs. He’s destined to be the lord of the landscape. Welcome home, Abe.

Jack Curtis, a Brookline, Mass.-based writer, presents a talk, “In the presence of America’s greatest soul: Saint-Gaudens and the Standing Lincoln,” today at 3:30 p.m. at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish.