Artist: Daniel Chester French
Title: Abraham Lincoln
Object number: 1954.79
Credit line: Gift of Mrs. William Penn Cresson (Margaret French), 1954.79
The eminent American sculptor Daniel Chester French was sixty-five when he was asked to create the most iconic monument of his long career—the statue at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. French’s friend and frequent collaborator Henry Bacon, the architect tasked with designing the classical temple that houses it, had recommended French for the job, but French had been known as a sculptor since he was twenty-two. That was the year his artistic talent and family friendships with the leading citizens of Concord, MA had brought him his first commission—a bronze Minute Man to commemorate the centennial of the first Revolutionary battle.
When the Minute Man was unveiled in 1875, French was already in Florence, Italy, continuing the studies in anatomy, drawing, and modeling he had begun in Boston and New York. French later studied in Paris, to which he credited a profound transformational effect upon his work. The Parisian style, first brought to the United States by French’s colleague and fellow-sculptor Auguste Saint-Gaudens, was relaxed, livelier, dynamic, and more textural than the Italianate Neoclassicism of French’s earlier works. Like Saint-Gaudens, French settled in New York upon his return from Paris, and the two worked together on monumental sculptures to decorate the “White City” of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
The sculpture for the Lincoln Memorial was not the first statue of the Great Emancipator that French had made. French’s first Lincoln was a standing figure (a model for which is in the collection of the New-York Historical Society), commissioned by the city of Lincoln, NE, and placed in an architectural setting designed by Bacon and inscribed with the text of the Gettysburg Address in 1912. After securing the Lincoln Memorial commission, the two men worked together on the pose and scale of the massive figure to ensure that it would sit well with Bacon’s temple.
The model of Lincoln’s head on display at the New-York Historical Society is the only full-sized maquette for a piece of the statue that French made. He used the plaster head to see what effects the light within the Memorial building would have on the finished sculpture (which he found quite unsatisfactory). For the purposes of translating his models into finished marble, French made a seven-foot plaster maquette, which he entrusted to the Piccirilli brothers. The six Piccirillis were a family of Italian immigrants and personal friends of French’s with whom he had collaborated earlier in his career. They were also highly skilled stone-carvers and sculptors in their own right, who maintained a large studio in the Bronx from 1901 until the mid-1940s and executed many of New York City’s iconic architectural sculptures, such as the New York Public Library lions.
The Lincoln Memorial sculpture, nineteen-feet tall and weighing 170 tons, was carved from twenty-four blocks of marble so skillfully that in 1919, when the segments were all assembled for the first time, the joints could hardly be seen. The Lincoln was dedicated on Memorial Day in 1922, when French was seventy-two and still fretting about lighting it correctly. He grumbled that the Lincoln Memorial sculpture had “been incalculable in cost to my temper,” but it is now widely acclaimed as a national treasure. Likewise, the model of Lincoln’s head is one of the “great treasures” of the New-York Historical Society’s collection.
In October 1951, the sculptor Malvina Hoffmann (whose own show at the New-York Historical Society was on view at the time) suggested to her friend and fellow-artist Margaret French Cresson (Daniel Chester French’s only daughter) that she donate a group of her own and her father’s portrait busts and models to the Historical Society. Mrs. Cresson agreed to do so, and began making arrangements with the then-Director, R.W.G. Vail. A year later, she remembered the existence of the full-sized Lincoln head, which had been kept at the Piccirrilli studios but had been lost when the shop broke up. Fortunately, the head was rediscovered at the Roman Bronze Works in Corona, NY, a foundry that produced bronze editions of French’s work. Mrs. Cresson arranged with Salvatore Schiavo, the owner and a second-generation caster, for the foundry to color the plaster model to resemble bronze. It entered the collection of the New-York Historical Society in 1954 (it may have received a new base at the same time), in which year the Historical Society was able to exhibit a gallery devoted to the works of Daniel Chester French and his daughter. In the 1970s, the maquette was painted white, in imitation of plaster, while the work was on loan to Chesterwood, French’s country home and studio that is now a National Trust Historic Site.