Guest Posts

Everyone’s Lincoln

Note from Pamela: This guest post is by Malena Ani, the 9th grade student with whom I have the pleasure twice a week to explore all topics related to the humanities. This is the second of three posts about sculptors who had the chance to demonstrate their love for Abraham Lincoln in statues they created. Due to Malena’s research, I now know the story behind the hands of this awe-inspiring statue. My resident cinematographer — Professor William McDonald — appreciated the story behind the lighting of the statue (the first version mortified Daniel Chester French). When Bill and I lived in Washington D.C. we used to visit the Lincoln Memorial regularly, at night, when the city quieted. We always walked away moved and inspired.

Bill in front of the statue a few years ago. The lighting was improved four years after the original "mortifying" lighting.
I took this photo of Bill in front of the statue a few years ago. Thank goodness, the lighting was improved four years after the original “mortifying” lighting.


Everyone’s Lincoln by Malena Ani

Daniel Chester French was born on April 20, 1850 in Exeter, New Hampshire. Daniel was the youngest of four children. His father, Henry Flagg French, was a lawyer and judge. In 1867, he urged Daniel to enroll in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This didn’t turn out as well as his father had hoped. Daniel failed physics, chemistry, and algebra. Daniel was put to work on the family farm where he started carving figures from wood, gypsum, and turnips. His father recognized his talent and asked the advice of their neighbor who was an artist, May Alcott (Louisa May Alcott’s sister). May gave him tools and modeling clay to give to Daniel.

Soon, Daniel was making plaster figurines to sell to a ceramic and pottery firm in Boston. In 1873, Daniel received his first commission for a life-sized sculpture. ‘’Minute Man’’ stands at the Old North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts to honor the soldiers who fought and died in the battles of Concord in 1775.

Daniel was invited to work in the studio of Thomas Ball, a highly respected American sculptor, in Florence, Italy. Daniel decided to go. In 1874, only seven years after failing his classes at MIT, Daniel ventured to Italy to study with Ball for two years. Over the next decade, Daniel would create numerous successful and beautiful sculptures.

In 1888, Daniel and Mary French married. It took them a long time to decide to get married because they were cousins. They moved to New York City, where Daniel’s work was receiving much recognition and he was getting more commissions than ever before. In 1889, Daniel created something more special than any sculpture. His only child, Margaret French, was born. In 1889, Daniel bought an estate in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He named it Chesterwood after his middle name, Chester. Chesterwood was Daniel’s ‘’heaven.’’ Daniel stayed in New York from November to May and spent summers at Chesterwood. Daniel followed this routine for the rest of his life.

In the following years, some of his most famous sculptures were: ‘’Alma Mater’’ (1903), ‘’Parkman Memorial’’ (1906), and ‘’Melvin Memorial’’(1908). In 1909, Daniel was commissioned to create a sculpture of Abraham Lincoln for the Nebraska State Capitol. He was chosen to sculpt Lincoln by his friend, Henry Bacon, the architect of the memorial. In the statue, Lincoln is looking down with his hands crossed in front of him. ‘’Lincoln’’ was unveiled in 1912 and stands in front of the Nebraska State Capitol.

"Lincoln" by Daniel Chester French in front of the Nebraska State Capitol, with Gettysburg Address behind him. Photo by Michael Snell
“Lincoln” by Daniel Chester French. Standing in front of the Nebraska State Capitol, with the Gettysburg Address behind. Photo: Michael Snell

In 1914, Daniel was commissioned to create another Lincoln sculpture that would forever touch the hearts of all who saw it. Henry Bacon was designing a majestic six-columned temple to honor the 16th president and he wanted Daniel to sculpt Lincoln. As the cornerstone for the memorial was being laid on February 12, 1915, Daniel was busy finishing up his first model. Daniel’s fourth model was not completed until 1917. The sculpture was taking longer than expected but Daniel wanted to take his time and do it right.

While Daniel was working on the hands of Lincoln, he used casts of Lincoln’s hand that were made by Leonard Volk in 1860. But the hands were clenched into fists and Daniel didn’t want Lincoln’s hands to be fisted in his sculpture, so Daniel used his own hands as a model. Thus, when you see ‘’Lincoln,’’ you see the hands of Daniel.

When the carving of the Lincoln statue was finally done, it was 1919. The pieces were moved and assembled in the memorial building. The sculpture of Lincoln sitting is 19 feet tall. If the statue were of Lincoln standing, he would be 28 feet tall! It was not until 1922 that electric lights were installed. When Daniel saw the sculpture illuminated for the first time, he was mortified. Because the lighting was coming from ground level pointed in an upward direction, it struck Lincoln in the eyes and made him look both surprised and terrified. But there was not enough money to change the lighting. ‘’Lincoln’’ was unveiled on May 30, 1922. Good lighting or not, everyone loved it! In 1926, proper lighting for the statue was installed.



Hands Of An Artist: Daniel French’s Lincoln Memorial. (n.d.). Retrieved December 4, 2015, from

United States National Park Service. (2015, December 3). Memorial Builders. Retrieved December 4, 2015, from

Goldstein, E. (1997). The statue Abraham Lincoln: A masterpiece by Daniel Chester French. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications.

Richman, M., French, D., & York, N. (1976). Daniel Chester French, an American sculptor. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.


  • Carolyn Goodart

    Malena, This is a very interesting article! I admired Daniel Samuel French for finding his passion in sculpture, especially after he didn’t do well in physics at MIT. And his father was wise to encourage him in his talent! I liked learning this from your story. One of my favorite philosophers is Joseph Campbell whose advice to his students was “Follow your bliss.”

  • Andy McEwan

    Another interesting post, Malena, and one which got me thinking. Thinking about things like – why did the sculptor choose to show Lincoln in a seated pose? why is the statue of such massive size? why are there carvings of fasces on the front of the chair (throne?)? I’ve done some research and a lot of thinking about those and other issues and I’m sure I’ll do more of each. Thanks for a thought-provoking account of “Everyone’s Lincoln”

    • TwointheMiddle

      Dear Andy,
      Thank you for your comment! I think Daniel Chester French chose to sculpt Lincoln in a seated position because if he were standing up, the sculpture would be 28 feet tall! Also, most statues of Lincoln are of him standing so maybe French didn’t want to sculpt another standing Lincoln. I read an article about the meaning of fasces because I didn’t know what they were. I learned that fasces are a bundle of wooden rods tied together with an axe at the top. Fasces represent power and authority. Maybe French put fasces on the sculpture because he wanted to show that Lincoln was a powerful man. Thank you for telling me about the Fasces. I had never heard of them before!

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