Friday, September 4, 2015

The George Grey Barnard Statue of Abraham Lincoln: In the Eye of the Beholder

Courtesy Wikipedia

(Part two of three. See part one  about the origins of this statue and the disagreement surrounding its creation.)

The dedication of Barnard's sculpture in Cincinnati in 1917 did not settle the questions over his work as new debates soon arose nationwide, and even across the Atlantic Ocean. These disputes over the accuracy and attractiveness of his statue were more widespread than the localized questions about its creation.

As The "Great War" was taking place in Europe and discussion about possible American intervention in the war increased, a debate over image and memory began. The American Centennial Committee existed to commemorate the centennial of the end of the War of 1812 and, to celebrate one hundred years of peace with England, decided to send a copy of a statue of Abraham Lincoln to London as a gift to stand in front of the Parliament building. Even as the ongoing war delayed or cancelled some of the planned ceremonies, debate began about which statue to send. Some people wanted to send a copy of a statue by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, but others then proposed gifting a copy of Barnard's work instead. This idea ignited an intense scrutiny of Barnard's piece and his depiction of the martyred hero. The ensuing discussion led to harsh criticism of Barnard's sculpture, according to various sources such as this article by Harold E. Dickson.

Critics, including Robert Lincoln, disliked the overall appearance of the statue, including the long neck, slouched shoulders and oversized hands and feet. Even Barnard's casting of shoes instead of boots on Lincoln's feet drew ire. Many considered the statue undignified and ugly.  

Members of the American Congress joined the debate over the appropriateness of sending Barnard's work as the gift.  Many people opposed this possibility due to the statue's perceived ugliness. Robert Lincoln was among those who fought strongly against this idea. He called the thought of giving it to England "simply horrible," according to this link, and pledged he was "doing everything possible" to stop it. He described Barnard's work as "a monstrous figure which is grotesque as a likeness of President Lincoln and defamatory as an image." 

(An interesting suggestion comes from page 75 of the book  Summers with Lincoln: Searching for the Man in the Monuments (2009, Fordham University Press) as author James A. Percoco speculates that Robert Lincoln's disapproval of this image may have been due to youthful embarrassment over his father's appearance and how this work reminded him of that.)

Other descriptions of this monument included: "a mistake in bronze," "revolting as a portrait," "more simian than human" "colossal clodhopper," "a distressing statue,"and (my favorite and almost the title of this post) "misshapen, ugly, comic, cartoonist feet exhibiting plenty of sole, but no soul." The Literary Digest claimed: "people are somewhat startled by the stark realism" of the statue.

Gutzon Borglum, famed later for his work on Mount Rushmore, but who had lost out on the commission for the Lincoln statue to Barnard, also chimed in (probably with a vineyard full of sour grapes), calling it "the Barnard grotesque."

A very thorough and helpful  article by Adam I.P. Smith (which discusses Lincoln's memory/image in England and British-American relations in the early 20th century - it goes well beyond the scope of my posts, but is certainly worth reading) notes that Judd Stewart, who collected Lincoln-related items, wrote to the British Commissioner of Public Works that Barnard had represented Lincoln "as a weakling with an immature body, with atrocious hands and feet, and with a face that...shows an almost painful expression of insipidity and weakness" and that erecting this work in front of Parliament would be "a lasting shame to the donors and to the people of London."

It became known as the "stomach ache statue" due to Barnard's placing of Lincoln's hands on his abdomen, while other people felt it was not "statesman-like" enough. A recent eBay auction of a photograph of the statue described it as "sad, weary."


Screen capture of eBay auction

Despite this, condemnation was not universal, as other people liked it. John Stewart, who, according to Smith's article had suggested sending this statue to England, wrote to the British version of the centennial committee that Barnard's sculpture would be a good choice as it would "present a man and not an idealized effigy."

Barnard's work also impressed Theodore Roosevelt who wrote approvingly: "At last we have the Lincoln of the Lincoln-Douglas debates...This statue is unique; I know of no other so full of life."

Of Barnard, Roosevelt continued: "the greatest sculptor of our age...He has given us Lincoln, the Lincoln we know and love."

William Howard Taft, in his dedication speech, said: "The sculptor, in his presentment of Lincoln, which we here dedicate, portrays the unusual height, the sturdy frame, the lack of care in dress, the homely but strong face, the sad but sweet features, the intelligence and vision of our greatest American. He has with success caught in this countenance and this form the contrast between the pure soul and the commanding intellect of one who belongs to the ages."

Others in the art and journalism worlds also approved of Barnard's work. The North American, a Philadelphia newspaper, wrote of it, in words similar to Roosevelt's, that it was "the people's Lincoln and the people will know it as their own."

At the beginning of the project, the Cincinnati Enquirer expected an "heroic" and "colossal" statue and seven years later used similar language in a highly complimentary article the day after the dedication, calling it "heroic," and "an imposing and impressive work."  In May of 1918, the Enquirer reprinted a Washington Post article which quoted sculptor Jerome Connor as saying that Barnard's statue was "eloquent of power, of will and dominance" and that it demonstrated "the indomitable spirit and will of the Lincoln of history."

In his book, Percoco suggests that this issue was now more than an argument over the sculptor's vision or the statue's attractiveness, and had evolved into "a question of who owned Lincoln's memory. Barnard's vision of a rumpled hick rankled those who believed that Lincoln should be afforded greater dignity in a public sculpture" (page 62).

As Smith's article shows, the question of ownership of Lincoln's memory arose not just in the United States, but in England also. Some Englishmen, like famed Lincoln biographer Lord Charnwood, preferred Saint-Gaudens' interpretation, but others liked Barnard's work. Playwright John Drinkwater wrote of Barnard's statue that "in every basic principle of the art it is as profound and as exact as are the creations of Michael Angelo (sic) himself." Charnwood, Drinkwater and other British writers and thinkers tried to connect Lincoln to England through his genealogy, liberalism and similarities to British politicians, political philosophies and accomplishments of the past.

In early 1918, the American Centennial Committee asked its membership for its preference of which statue to send and the Saint-Gaudens work, featuring an older Lincoln in more formal pose, won easily. Polls by various newspapers produced similar results, with Barnard's creation consistently finishing at the bottom of the contests. Thanks at least partially to pressure from Robert Lincoln, American politicians and groups in England, this committee formally approved the choice of Saint-Gaudens' statue as the appropriate gift. With funding from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a copy of this work was cast and shipped to London, where it was dedicated in 1920. 

Saint-Gaudens statue in London, courtesy Wikipedia 

Thus, most of the controversy over the creation and appearance of this statue had reached its natural conclusion, but a few questions about this work remained. The next post, the final one in this series, will describe those, including the story of the two final copies of Barnard's sculpture. I will then post a separate entry listing the sources I used for this story.

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