Thursday, September 3, 2015

The George Grey Barnard Statue of Abraham Lincoln: Cast in Controversy

Detail from undated postcard, author's collection

Creating a statue to a national hero and giving it as a gift to a city may sound like a fairly simple idea, but even a seemingly smooth path can turn out to be full of bumps, as in the following story of George Grey Barnard's statue of Abraham Lincoln in downtown Cincinnati.

Following up on a recent post about the possibility of this statue being moved within a renovated park, I found some truly fascinating history behind this monument. I learned that a book on this subject already exists, but have not read it, though I may look into buying it. Despite that, I believe I have found enough of the story to share here (so much, in fact, they I have separated it into three posts, plus a separate list of sources, in order to make it more readable.) It is an interesting tale of controversy which mixes memory and image with family, national and even international legacy, along with the question of who decides, creates or controls such historical concepts.

The idea for this statue originated when local businessman, Civil War veteran and Lincoln admirer Frederick Alms passed away. A few years later, his widow thought that donating $100,000 for a statue of Lincoln for Cincinnati, around the centennial of Lincoln's birth, would be an appropriate way to honor both her late husband and the martyred ex-president. She had attorney Harry Probasco create and preside over a Lincoln Memorial Committee, consisting of five trustees (Probasco and four others), to handle this project, in late 1909. The intention at the time was for a "heroic" or "colossal" statue according to the Cincinnati Enquirer of May 18, 1910.

When four of the trustees contracted sculptor George Grey Barnard to create the statue, Probasco, president of the committee and, who, along with Mrs. Alms, preferred to hire Gutzon Borglum as the artist, claimed or threatened to resign his position, though it is not clear if he actually did do. Shortly thereafter, with some question as to whether or not a unanimous decision on a sculptor was required by the committee's rules, Mrs. Alms then threatened to revoke her financial pledge if Barnard was hired. Charles P. Taft, one of the trustees, then decided to pay the $100,000 for it as a gift from the Taft family in place of the Alms family, and "after some rather heated correspondence" according to the Enquirer, the remaining four trustees, including Taft, resigned from the committee. It briefly appeared that Cincinnati might receive two Lincoln statues, one from Alms and another from Taft. Probasco, however, called this possibility "manifestly absurd" but noted that if Mrs. Alms did pay for a statue by Borglum, "it would be so far superior to anything that George Grey Barnard might execute - it would be as the sun at midday compared to a tallow candle."

Barnard, the sculptor whom Taft and the other trustees chose to create the Lincoln statue, was well-known throughout the country, though the linked biography notes that he had "endured a period of rejection due to his refusal to conform to others’ perceptions of what his work should be" early in his career, a foreshadowing of what he called his "journey through the heart of Lincoln." His goal for the Lincoln statue was to make it appear as real and human as possible. A 1916 Enquirer article quoted him as saying "I would not feel that his face could give its message if I had left out a single wrinkle of the network of lines, or even the wart on his left cheek." According to a booklet about the dedication ceremony, he felt that an "imaginary Lincoln" would be "an insult to the American people, a thwarting of democracy" and believed that "the tool Lincoln and God made - Lincoln's self - must be shown." He considered art "the science that bridges 'tween nature and man" and believed in "Sculpture being a science to interpret living forms," so this was the tool he would use to acoomplish his "intense desire to tell the truth about Lincoln's form."

He chose to portray the younger, clean-shaven Lincoln as he appeared before becoming famous instead of the familiar bearded Lincoln. (Perhaps this compares to the "young Elvis" or "fat Elvis" postage-stamp question of a few years ago.) He gave his subject an informal pose and wrinkled clothing instead of an idealized view of a famous leader decked-out in the nicest of clothes and perfect posture.



Once finished, the 11-foot tall statue went on temporary display in New York City. It moved to its permanent home and was dedicated in Cincinnati's Lytle Park in a large ceremony on March 31, 1917 with former President William Howard Taft, a Cincinnati native and Charles' half-brother, giving a dedication speech. Edward Colston, a prominent local attorney who was married to a daughter of former Kentucky Governor John W. Stevenson, presided over the ceremony. Interestingly enough, he was also a former Confederate soldier. Perhaps this was symbolic of the spirit of reconciliation that existed throughout the country decades after the war. This brief article from the National Park Service discusses how reconciliation was a much more prominent theme of the creation of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., (constructed in a similar time period as Barnard's work), than was emancipation.

Here is the booklet about the ceremony, including comments from Barnard, Taft's speech and an acceptance speech from Cincinnati Mayor George Puchta.

"The Unveiling" from the ceremony booklet

The creation of this monument, however, was just the beginning of the controversy. Once the statue was dedicated, the idea of sending a copy of it to England developed and this led to a close review of Barnard's work. The next two installations of this story will explore the various reactions the final product evoked.

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