Lincoln Memorial

The surprising history behind the Lincoln Memorial

Here’s how the iconic monument, now celebrating its centennial, made its way from a Massachusetts artist colony to the National Mall.

The Lincoln Memorial, a landmark in Washington, D.C., was unveiled to the public and dedicated on May 30, 1922. Symbolism and scale leave a strong impression on the millions who visit the monument, now celebrating its centennial.
Photograph by Sasha Arutyunova, National Geographic

When the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C., on Memorial Day 1922, its symbolism resonated with onlookers. A far cry from the idealism advanced by previous memorials, such as Horatio Greenough’s bare-chested George Washington, this colossal statue introduced a different style of commemoration, one based on realism. For despite its heroic setting—situated within a towering Greek Revival temple—the effect of this sculpture of the “Great Emancipator” is intimate, exuding a personal feel.

A century after its unveiling, the sculpture of President Abraham Lincoln is an essential stop on the National Mall for millions of annual visitors. They climb the monument’s “four score and seven” (87) marble steps to snap a photo of themselves dwarfed by the statue’s massive size.

Symbolism and scale are two qualities that make this memorial so impactful. “As far as monuments go, this is a really, really good one,” says Harry Rubenstein, curator emeritus for the division of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “It has that temple-like quality, and the statue reveals itself slowly as you walk up the steps—it doesn’t hit you all at once. And as you move up, you are made small by this incredible statue.”

The memorial famously depicts Lincoln in a contemplative state, with a worn expression on his face, the Stars and Stripes draped across his shoulders signifying perhaps the weight of holding a new nation steady.

Yet it’s difficult to say exactly what sculptor Daniel Chester French intended beyond the physical representation. “He seldom spoke about his work,” says Harold Holzer, author of Monument Man: The Life and Art of Daniel Chester French. “My favorite French quote on this was: ‘A statue has to speak for itself, and it seems useless to explain to everyone what it means. I have no doubt that people will read into my statue of Lincoln a great deal I did not consciously think. Whether it will be for good or ill, who can say?’”

The monument’s centennial this year gives travelers the opportunity to reflect anew on what has become an iconic emblem of American history. It’s also a chance to rediscover one of America’s finest sculptors both in D.C. and in Massachusetts, where Daniel Chester French’s studio, Chesterwood, is preserved as he left it at the time of his death in 1931.

Memorializing Lincoln

It took more than five years for French to complete the statue of Lincoln. Much transpired in the U.S. and abroad—including most of World War I—from the moment he was awarded the contract in December 1914 to the installation of his work in 1920.

Working in his studio, French sculpted not just an iconic tribute to a fallen president. He also created a significant work of art, both for its size (it rises 30 feet inside Henry Bacon’s Greek Revival temple) and his unusual portrayal of a seated Lincoln—a rare posture for statues honoring statesmen at the time.

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French would have been very familiar with Lincoln. He was a teenager when the president was assassinated in 1865, and Lincoln was the most photographed person of his day, especially toward the end of his presidency. “It was Lincoln under stress, who had the burdens of presidency and the war. Those are the photos [French] had to work with, not those of a young Lincoln,” says Rubenstein.

On display at Chesterwood are an early 10-inch-tall miniature cast of the memorial statue displayed next to the final six-foot-tall model completed in 1916, showing the work in progress.

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The 10-inch model exhibits French’s initial grave depiction of Lincoln, his face downcast. Lifting the chin changed the effect, but without taking away solemnity. “He was looking down and his legs are in a different position, as are the hands,” explains Chesterwood executive director Donna Hassler, of the two models. “But sculptures often change from initial concept to the enlarged, enhanced versions.”

Much is made of the symbolism in French’s positioning of the hands. The National Park Service, which oversees the Lincoln Memorial, states on its website: “One of the president’s hands is clenched, representing his strength and determination to see the war through to a successful conclusion. The other hand is a more open, slightly more relaxed hand representing his compassionate, warm nature.”

“There were plaster casts of Lincoln’s face and hands available commercially. French had those to work from, too,” adds Hassler.

But the plaster casts made by Chicago artist Leonard Volk in 1860, a month after Volk made Lincoln’s life mask—the first of two in existence—differ from the statue’s. “Volk’s molds have both hands clenched,” notes Rubenstein. “It is thought the hands were French’s own.”

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Portrait of an artist

Although the Lincoln Memorial is known the world over, and the statue’s prolific creator produced more than 90 public works in the U.S. and one in Paris, French’s name goes largely unrecognized. “Most people care about [a] sculpture or [a] painting, they don’t always connect the dots to the artist who created it,” says Hassler.

French was born in 1850 in Exeter, New Hampshire, into a family of lawyers. He grew up in Concord, Massachusetts, by then a progressive, well-to-do town shaped by Transcendentalists, abolitionists, and suffragettes. Here, an established artistic community created by writers Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Louisa May Alcott nurtured French’s creativity.

“Being a part of the Emerson circle made a big difference to French. May Alcott gave French his first lessons in modeling clay,” says Concord Museum curator David Wood, referencing Louisa’s youngest sister, Abigail. According to local legend, it was Abigail who encouraged French to apply for his first commission—sculpting Concord’s Revolutionary War centennial memorial.

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That memorial, called The Minute Man, and French’s bust of Emerson five years later helped propel his career. By the time the Lincoln Memorial came along, French was already a well-established sculptor, making it easy for his colleague and friend, architect Henry Bacon—who had been commissioned to design the Lincoln Memorial—to invite French to take the job.

No one can say for certain what French intended for the Lincoln statue. “Clearly, he would have been influenced by several events swirling around him at the time he was working on the monument,” says Rubenstein. “Americans during World War I—‘a war to end all wars’ and to preserve democracy—often drew parallels to the Civil War and Lincoln for inspiration on how to overcome a world in crisis.”

Until and even after the dedication, French was under no illusions that the nation was united in praising Lincoln and supporting a monument in his honor, especially since the unveiling came at a time of increased demand for equal rights following the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909.

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Indeed, at the 1920 dedication, Black attendees were segregated far from the memorial. And in the original draft of his speech, Tuskegee Institute’s Robert Russa Moton, the only Black keynote speaker that day, called the memorial “a hollow mockery, a symbol of hypocrisy, unless we together can make real in our national life, in every state and in every section, the things for which he died.” That part of his address was scrubbed.

Today, travelers can glimpse French’s artistic life at the Concord Museum (he was a founding member) and Chesterwood, built in 1897 with Bacon’s help. At the museum, visitors can see his early work: a Minute Man model and a display of French’s small, beautifully carved Parian figurines (early porcelains sold as home decorations).

The studio (open to the public spring through fall) remains much as it would have been when French worked on the Lincoln. Enormous windows favor a northern light. Inside, the ceiling soars 26 feet, with big double doors that accommodated several equestrian monuments, one of which now stands on the Place d’Iéna in Paris. In D.C., French’s 1921 sculpture honoring Rear Admiral Samuel Francis Dupont, a popular Civil War naval hero, in Dupont Circle was recently restored.

Despite these many significant commissions, French felt the weight of public regard for Lincoln, making the memorial statue “the most demanding commission of his career,” says Holzer. “When he was asked what he hoped the Lincoln Memorial sculpture conveyed, French’s response was ‘Work over, victory his.’”

Linda Laban is a writer based in New York City and Boston, specializing in the arts, history, and nature. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Sasha Arutyunova is a photographer born in Moscow, raised in Florida, and based in New York City. Her work depicts cinematic moments in the every day. Follow her on Instagram.

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