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. The commission came to Allen through Paul Wayland Bartlett, an American sculptor who was his teacher in Paris. It was unveiled on May 31, 1922, the day after the dedication of the Washington D.C. Lincoln Memorial 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.”
“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 England 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)
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, so he had not attended the unveiling.
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 newspaper story reported, “This is the most important of the eighty tablets to be set in the stair hall of the building.”
The legacy that Allen inherited from those who influenced him was not only from the elder sculptors Daniel Chester French (1850-1931), and Augustus St. Gaudens (1848-1907), and Bela Pratt (1867-1917), but also from Paul Wayland Bartlett (1865-1925), his teacher at the Académie Colarossi in Paris, who brought him the commission for this important historical portrait. Barlett was president of the National Sculpture Society from 1917-1919 and a master of his art. St. Gaudens was an innovator in the new American expression in sculpture and used bas-relief for the eagle on the back of the chair of his Lincoln statue. It seems that Allen knew that Standing Lincoln (1887) and used the idea of the spread eagle on the base of his own portrait relief. The eagle is a fitting symbol of the power and authority of the Presidency. In both sculptures, 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. Below an uncomplicated crown molding and above Lincoln’s head are three stars, a symbol used on the American flag. A lettered heading below the stars is the year the sculpture was created in Roman numerals and Latin words. The eagle portion of the plaque is at the base, protruding outward slightly from the portrait above it and flaring at the bottom on a simple footing. A lettered heading, pertinent symbols and a broad base were elements often used by St. Gaudens in his portrait work emulated by Allen here.
Note the difference in the header between the original clay and the final bronze. 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 dry-brush effect.
The portrait itself is quite natural and realistic, but also beautifully artistic. It shows him in profile facing to his left, with his typical tousled hair and slightly rumpled suit jacket, one point of his collar sticking up unselfconsciously over the off-kilter hand knotted flat bow tie as if his appearance were not that important to him. He did grow up in a log cabin, after all and had more important things on his mind than whether he was impeccably dressed and groomed. In this portrait he does not wear the beard we all remember, so that unique and recognizable face, fully exposed, shows the depth of his character. “His whole nature was simple and sincere – he was pure, and then was himself.” 1
Medium or Technique: Bronze plaque
Dimensions: 36” h x 22” w (91.44cm x 55.88cm)
Provenance: New England Historic Genealogical Society, Ashburton Place in Boston, sold at auction after the move to a new building because it was too heavy to hang on the wall. Located in a private collection.
Exhibitions: Dedication ceremony held Wednesday, 31 May 1922
Publications: New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Volume 76 in July 1922 on the frontispieces and in a chapter by Henry Fitz-Gilbert Waters entitled “The Lincoln Memorial”.
Newspaper story, probably in the Boston Evening Transcript in May or June, 1922 entitled: “Bronze Memorial to the ‘Rail Splitter,’ Presented to the New England Historic Genealogical Society Is Dedicated With Exercises at Society’s Building”
Inscriptions: ANNO MDCCCCXXII D D. Clay original is inscribed PATRI FILIVS CDDCCCCXXI and bears no signature.
Signatures: Signed bottom right of the torso: F.W.ALLEN FECIT 1922
Notes: Sold in 1921 for $600, auctioned in 2004 by James D. Julia Auctioneers in Maine
1Allen G. Guelzo, “Holland’s Informants: The Construction of Josiah Holland’s “Life of Abraham Lincoln,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Volume 23, Number 1, Winter 2002, p. 53 (Letter from J. T. Duryea to Josiah G. Holland, undated)