Who would have known that Abraham Lincoln‘s lineage goes back to the 1630’s in New England? His son, Robert Todd Lincoln did and, attaching a sentimental value to those origins, funded this very fine memorial to his father to be placed in the New England Historic Genealogical Society‘s building when it was at Ashburton Place in Boston. It was unveiled on May 31, 1922, the day after the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, sculpted by fellow Concord resident Daniel Chester French. (French had registered praise for Allen’s work eight years before when he was a young sculptor.) Four years later the seated Lincoln Memorial by Augustus St. Gaudens was unveiled in Chicago.
In the Society’s Register from July 1922 (p.163), the bas-relief was featured on the frontispiece and in the chapter “The Lincoln Memorial,” dedicated to the unveiling ceremony. The Chairman of the Committee on Mural Memorials gave the introduction saying, “Now that the tablet has been cast in bronze and fixed in its place on the wall, we have called our friends and our neighbors together, saying ‘Rejoice with us.’ We all owe a great debt to the sculptor, Mr. Frederick W. Allen. I had hoped that Mr. Allen would be here this afternoon, so that you all might have had an opportunity to meet a great master of his art and tell him how noble and beautiful a portrait he has made.”
Allen was a humble man and had always been reticent about receiving public praise for his art saying that if his work was good, it would speak for itself.
The Society’s President Eliot added later in the ceremony, “This portrait represents Abraham Lincoln as a younger man than we have been accustomed to see him in photographs and engravings. The face is not so furrowed with lines which care and sorrow later made upon it. On that very account, it is a beautiful and impressive likeness, especially welcome in this Society’s building.
The legacy that Allen inherited from those who influenced him was not only from the elder sculptor Daniel Chester French (1850-1931), and Augustus St.Gaudens (1848-1907), the teacher and mentor of his own teacher, mentor and friend Bela Pratt (1867-1917), but also from Paul Wayland Bartlett (1865-1925), his teacher at the Académie Colarossi in Paris. St. Gaudens was a master of bas-relief and an innovator in that style. (see also the post on Abraham Shuman) Here, it seems that Allen saw the Standing Lincoln (1887) and used the idea of the spread eagle motif found on the back of the President’s chair on the base of this portrait relief. The eagle is a fitting symbol of the power and authority of the Presidency. In both, it has spread wings with a stylized parallel horizontal feather arrangement. In both, the eagle’s head is turned toward its left and claws clutch olive branches, a symbol of Lincoln as peacemaker. Above Lincoln’s head are three stars, a symbol used on the American flag, below an uncomplicated crown molding. A lettered heading below the stars is the year of the dedication in Roman numerals and Latin words. At the base is the eagle portion, protruding outward slightly and flaring at the bottom on a simple footing. A lettered heading, pertinent symbols and a broad base were often used by St.Gaudens.
The job was sent to him by his Paris teacher, Paul Bartlett, President of the National Sculpture Society from 1917-1919.
(Make note of one difference between the original clay and the final bronze: the header is different. In the original, the lettering and date, PATRI.FILIUS.CD DCCCXXI was corrected to read ANNO.MDCCCXXII D.D and was reformed in a larger size.)
It was common in St.Gaudens’ relief work to use what looked like brush strokes, as if he were “painting” with clay. Allen uses this same effect in the textured background with a horizontal drybrush effect.
“From the first my committee felt a great solicitude about this tablet. We were very anxious that it should be a worthy tribute to Lincoln himself, and we also were anxious that it should be worthy of the sentiment which prompted Mr. Robert Todd Lincoln to give a tablet in memory of his father to our New Encland Society. Anxious as we were at the outset, we have felt no anxiety and no misgivings since Mr. Allen first permitted us to see his work. Of its merit each of you will … be able to judge for himself.” (Robert D. Weston, Committee Chairman)