It’s hard to imagine Abraham Lincoln grinning from one big ear to the other. Portraits of our 16th president typically represent him as a brooding guy incapable of merriment. They personify the heavy burdens shouldered by Lincoln during the Civil War and his sadness over personal tragedies, particularly the death of his son Willie.
A small exhibition at the visitor center next to the newly restored Lincoln Cottage at the old Soldiers’ Home traces how some of these somber likenesses evolved in sculpture. “A Deep and Subtle Expression” reveals the poses and expressions passed down from artist to artist to establish the most famous images of the president, from the Lincoln Memorial to Mount Rushmore.
Organized according to the major artists who portrayed Lincoln, the 16 working models, sketches and photos are drawn from holdings at four house museums run by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The earliest works in this concentrated, comparative show aren’t interpretative images but life masks made from Lincoln’s face. The first was cast in 1860 by Chicago artist Leonard Wells Volk who reproduced this original in bronze. Lincoln consented to have wet plaster dry on his clean-shaven face and after prying off the mask, declared “the process was anything but agreeable.”
Nevertheless, the president agreed to have a second life mask made by sculptor Clark Mills, the artist responsible for the statue of Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Square. In the exhibit, a reproduction made from this 1865 casting reflects a gaunt Lincoln with his ears concealed by an upswept hairdo.
These sculptures, recording the sitter’s high cheekbones and prominent nose, served as tools for generations of artists representing Lincoln.
Daniel Chester French certainly relied on them to create his best known work, the heroic sculpture inside the Lincoln Memorial, which opened to the public in 1922. A section in the exhibit on French’s marble statue is intriguing enough to spur a visit to the memorial if only to examine the details of its majestic figure.
To achieve a naturalistic pose, French studied the life masks as well as casts of Lincoln’s hands clutching a broom handle made by Volk in 1860. The artist also made a plaster cast of his clenched left hand to study how a similar fist could be added to his statue.
One of the biggest surprises in the exhibit is a pair of photos revealing the effects of lighting on the sculpted face inside the memorial. In direct light, Lincoln looks wide-eyed and slightly goofy, so French insisted artificial fixtures be added to the memorial to cast the sculpture in a more flattering play of light and shadow.
French’s seated president and his “Standing Lincoln,” completed in 1912 before the memorial statue, were largely derived from two influential statues in Chicago by Augustus Saint-Gaudens that are not pictured in the show. Saint-Gaudens’ first sculpture of Lincoln, completed in 1887, established the downbeat image of the president with bowed head that French and others would emulate.
One of these artists was a student of Saint-Gaudens, Charles Keck, who created a less imposing, seated Lincoln with his arms resting on his legs. As shown in the maquette in the exhibit, the president’s stovepipe hat was meant to be shown at his side but was eliminated in the final version.
The most recent sculpture in the exhibit is a more upbeat, hatted Lincoln posed with his horse. New York-based StudioEIS casually poses Lincoln on the ground to symbolize his daily commute from the Old Soldiers’ Home cottage to the White House during Washington’s hot summers.
Standing next to the horse with his right hand on the saddle, the president appears to have dismounted from his military horse or about to saddle up. The trip must have been pleasurable: In this sculpture, Lincoln is almost smiling.
WHAT: “A Deep and Subtle Expression: Lincoln in Sculpture”
WHERE: Robert H. Smith Visitor Education Center at President Lincoln’s Cottage, Rock Creek Church Road and Upshur Street NW
WHEN: Through Dec. 19; Monday through Saturday 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday 11:30 am to 5:30 p.m.
ADMISSION: $12 adults; $5 for children younger than 12