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Spotlight Artist: Daniel Chester French

Daniel Chester French

Abraham Lincoln - Lincoln Memorial, installed 1920


Political Art Topic : Political Stagecraft: Monuments and Memorials


The nineteen-foot tall statue of Abraham Lincoln emerged from the design of Massachusetts sculptor Daniel Chester French whose attention to detail, accuracy, and composition created a masterpiece. French devoted considerable effort toward depicting Lincoln during the midst of war. He viewed photographs, read eyewitness descriptions, and studied Leonard Volk’s 1860 castings of Lincoln’s hands, then sculpted several models until he rendered a perfected final product.

As visitors climb the marble steps, pass marble columns, and enter the chamber of the Lincoln Memorial, they are awestruck by Daniel Chester French’s enormous marble statue of Abraham Lincoln. To what part of the Georgia marble figure is the eye drawn first? Possibly, the serious look on Lincoln’s face will remind the visitor of the critical time of Civil War through which the president guided our nation. Maybe the reeds wrapped together in the arms of Lincoln’s chair will prompt the visitor to remember the way that Lincoln wanted to keep us bound together as one nation.

Carl Sandburg, one of America’s great authors and one of Abraham Lincoln’s well known biographers, described Mr. Lincoln as someone made up of both “steel and velvet.” The statue hands that Daniel Chester French carved seem to reflect Mr. Sandburg’s portrayal. Lincoln’s left hand is clenched in a manner depicting determination. Lincoln was determined to fight the war to its end in spite of the ongoing bloodshed. Lincoln’s right hand is open and relaxed. When the war was over, Lincoln wanted to bring the Southern states back into the Union in a peaceful way without looking for revenge.

Among Washington, D.C.’s numerous Daniel Chester French sculptures, the figure of Lincoln certainly stands out. In it, French conveyed great things through simple, well-executed, and careful composition.

(excerpt from

Abraham Lincoln was assassinated just after the end of the Civil War on April 14, 1865. By March of 1867, Congress incorporated the Lincoln Monument Association to build a memorial to the slain 16th President. In 1914, as part of a large rehabilitation of the Mall in Washington, D.C., they selected Daniel Chester French to create a statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Memorial that Henry Bacon had been commissioned to design.

French became acquainted with architect Henry Bacon (1866–1924) where Bacon was working for the architectural firm McKim, Mead and White at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The monument would become their greatest joint effort—a project of eight years resulting in a significant national shrine.

To convey the intellectual and psychological strength of the great president, French made an intensive study of the Lincoln’s character as a result of an earlier commission from the state capitol of Lincoln, Nebraska. He used Lincoln biographies, photographs, and contemporary portraits, as well as a life mask and casts of the President’s hands, to make his work effective and accurate. The work was dedicated on May 30, 1922. (excerpt from


Essential Questions

  • What is the difference between a monument and a memorial?

  • Does this work meet the standard definition of a memorial?

  • What makes a work like this "successful?"

  • What role does scale play in this work's impact?

  • How has this been used by others for political stagecraft (to project a message)?


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