Lincoln in Lincoln Park
Giving the podium back to Loredo Taft -- here is what he had to write about the statue of Lincoln in Chicago's Lincoln Park -- from "Modern Tendencies in Sculpture" published in 1921. By the way -- only two artists got their own chapters in this survey: Augustus Rodin and Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
On the afternoon of a beautiful day in May, 1881, the "Farragut”, erected upon its admirably designed exedra, was unveiled in Madison Square and made public property. From that time Saint-Gaudens held securely the leadership of American sculpture. Yes, from that day our national art has been colored by his dominant influence.
I like Kenyon Cox's description of the "Farragut": "There is no cold conventionalism, neither is there any romanticism or melodrama, but a penetrating imagination which has got at the heart of the man' and given him to us 'in his habit as he lived,' cool, ready, determined, standing firmly, feet apart, upon his swaying deck, a sailor, a gentleman, and a hero."
Such perfection of workmanship was a novelty and a revelation to America. Here were all the plastic "color" and fluency of modern French handling within a severely simple contour. The two qualities are indispensable to great sculpture, and in this figure they are happily combined. Saint-Gaudens never did a finer piece of work.
In 1885 the sculptor’s notable high relief of Dr. Henry Bellows made more widely known his ability in portraiture and particularly his unique decorative sense. In this remarkable work he seems to establish more firmly than ever his relationship with the fascinating Florentines of the fifteenth century.
The year 1887 was marked by a great event, not only in the life of the sculptor but in the history of American art. It was in that year that the "Abraham Lincoln" was unveiled in Lincoln Park, Chicago. This product of profound study and unwearying experiment instantly justified all of the toil which the master had lavished upon it. In regard to its reception I may be permitted to quote a paragraph or two from my History of American Sculpture:
"The 'Lincoln” was at once hailed as the greatest portrait in the United States. It has remained so. From its exalted conception of the man to the last detail of its simple accessories it is a masterpiece. The sculptor's idea was a novel one, which may have been suggested by Mr. Yolk's 'Lincoln' at Springfield, Illinois. He introduces the striking adjunct of a large chair, from which the President is supposed to have risen. Before it stands the gaunt figure with bowed head, as though lost in thought, or preparing to address a multitude. The left foot is well advanced; the left hand grasps the lapel of the coat in a familiar gesture. The right is behind the back, affording an agreeable but inconspicuous counterbalance to the droop of the head. It has been pointed out that the bent left arm gives interest to the lengthy front and at the same time suggests an arrested movement of the hand to the brow, thus reinforcing the idea of concentration of mind. "But it is the expression of that strange, almost grotesquely plain, yet beautiful face, crowned with tumbled locks, which arrests and holds the gaze. In it is revealed the massive but many-sided personality of Lincoln with a concreteness and a serene adequacy which has discredited all other attempts and, indeed, with the 'Admiral Farragut,' has 'brought about a new scale of values' in our portrait art. It has been Saint-Gaudens' rare talent to give life without realism, to offer us 'a suggestion of reality shrouded in poetry and grace.' For even this gnarled form has a grace all its own-the 'inward grace' which a profound master has apprehended and made visible."
I remember what a surprise that empty chair gave us. It was so daring-so strange! One had only to imagine it eliminated, however, to realize promptly how essential it was in the composition. Seen from a distance the figure without it would show but a meager and attenuated mass. Reinforced by this accessory the silhouette becomes ample, monumental. One approaches near enough to study detail, to read the expression, and the chair seems to disappear; it has served its purpose and now falls discreetly out of focus. It is one of the most ingenious devices of modern monumental art. All such considerations are forgotten, however, when one comes under the spell of the noble presentment. The bowed head and the broad shoulders-that combination of tenderness and strength which is the greatest thing possible in art, as indeed it is in life--are the introduction to a completeness of expression appealing to every heart. Royal Cortissoz has well summed up the power of our greatest sculptor when he says: "It is not simply that each one of the monuments has certain specific artistic" merits, lifting it to a high plane. It is rather that in everyone of his studies of historical subjects, Saint- Gaudens has somehow struck the one definitive note, has made his Lincoln or his Sherman a type which the generations must revere and which no future statues can invalidate.