The Many Faces of Honest Abe

By Bettina Smith
February 10, 2012

Abraham Lincoln will always be remembered as one of our nation’s greatest Presidents. In the years since his tragic death many artists have sought to memorialize him, so in honor of Lincoln’s birthday (February 12) here is a look at a few artistic renderings.


Larger than life

Photograph of Daniel Chester French
Daniel Chester French, 1920? / Underwood & Underwood Studios, photographer. Forbes Watson papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

We all know that Lincoln was a tall man who wasn’t afraid to wear a tall hat, and this might explain why he is often portrayed as a towering giant. The introspective seated Lincoln by Daniel Chester French in the Lincoln Memorial (1920) is roughly four times life size, though this photo shows a much smaller model in French’s studio.


Mount Rushmore, ca. 1934
Carving of Abraham Lincoln at Mount Rushmore, ca. 1934 / unidentified photographer. Mount Rushmore monument photographs, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

If that’s not big enough for you there’s always Lincoln’s head at Mount Rushmore. Sculpted by Gutzon Borglum between 1927 and 1941, it is a mind-boggling 60 feet tall. The sheer scale is shown beautifully in this photograph of a worker chipping away at Lincoln’s eye.



Warts and all

Barnard working on Lincoln in thought
George Grey Barnard working on his sculpture Lincoln in thought, ca. 1915 / Underwood & Underwood Studios, photographer. George Grey Barnard papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Sculptor George Grey Barnard has a fascination with Lincoln and produced several sculptures of the President. He sought to portray, in his own words, “the real Lincoln.” In this photo he is working on the colossal head he dubbed Lincoln in Thought (circa 1915), and you can see that he has given us Lincoln, warts and all. His full-length statue of Lincoln for the city of Cincinnati (dedicated 1917) was similarly non-idealized, and it met with much public criticism. The editor of the periodical The Art World dubbed it “a mistake in bronze.” Gutzon Borglum, who had vied with Barnard for the commission, called it “the Barnard grotesque.” The statue had its fans, however, among them none other than Theodore Roosevelt, who felt that this was “the true Lincoln,” commending Barnard by saying, “the greatest sculptor of our age has revealed the greatest soul of our age.”



A Martyr’s Memorial

Speech by Charles Sumner
Art in the National Capitol; speech in the Senate of the United States, 1866. Miscellaneous printed materials collection, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Another controversial sculpture of Lincoln was commissioned by Congress in 1866, soon after his assassination. The sculptor chosen was eighteen-year-old Vinnie Ream, the first woman ever to receive a government commission for a work of art. The selection did not go unchallenged. There were some who found her to be inexperienced, despite the fact that she had already sculpted a bust of Lincoln from life. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was particularly critical of Congress’s choice, and voiced his opinions in a speech which is reproduced in this pamphlet. Though he begrudgingly asserts that it is possible for a woman to produce a statue, he finds Ream to be “an untried person, whose friends can claim for her nothing more than the uncertain promise of such excellence in sculpture as is consistent with the condition of her sex.” He recommends a number of other (male) sculptors to create the statue instead, but the commission went to Ream in the end. Today her sculpture of Lincoln, brows furrowed and holding a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, still stands in the Capitol Rotunda.


Bettina Smith is the librarian for digital projects at the Archives of American Art.



Seeing this article will inspire others. I love those faces being featured in this post. Very.good pictures.

Wow, it is great work and great sharing, there is no doubt that they were genius and icon of the art whom create these sculptures.

Very good features. Ancient beauty, yet ever new. I love seeing it.