The Lincoln Memorial-Making Powerhouse: Daniel Chester French & Henry Bacon

By Morgan Little

Architect Henry Bacon and sculptor Daniel Chester French’s professional collaboration began when Bacon built a studio and summer home for the sculptor (now known as Chesterwood, a National Trust for Historic Preservation site) in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. For the next twenty-five years, Bacon would design the architectural settings for over fifty of French’s public sculptures. One commentator made this observation of Bacon and his relationship with French:

Postcard of the Lincoln Memorial c.1922, National Trust Collections at Chesterwood Estate & Museum

Postcard of the Lincoln Memorial, 1922, Chesterwood Estate & Museum, A National Trust Historic Site

“He seems to have studied or at least drawn, the human figure, and sculpture generally, rather less than might have been expected-especially as during the later part of his career he designed so many monuments- all distinguished by reserve and grace; but that, too, may have been due to full recognition that his usual collaborator, Daniel Chester French, could do that part of the work to his entire satisfaction.”

The pair shared a mutual respect for one another’s talents and a friendship that enabled them to achieve a truly harmonious integration of sculpture and architecture in the Lincoln Memorial.  Maquettes, architectural models and diagrams from many of their projects demonstrate their comfort in exchanging ideas with one another, a facet of their collaboration which, surely I believe, accounts for their success.

Two postcards (on loan from fellow Natioanl Trust Historic Site, Chesterwood) on view in the special exhibition, “A Deep and Subtle Expression: Lincoln in Sculpture” provide an intimate glimpse into their comradeship. A casual note written from Bacon to French just a few weeks before the dedication of the Memorial reads,

“Sorry to miss you yesterday – all going well…the inscription finally adopted. Yours, H.B.”

The memo is written on a postcard panorama of the Lincoln Memorial, revealing Bacon’s pride in the work. 

Postcard from Bacon to French, 1922, Chesterwood Estate & Museum, A National Trust Historic Site

Back of Lincoln Memorial postcard from Bacon to French, 1922, Chesterwood Estate & Museum, A National Trust Historic Site

I imagine Bacon’s warm tone eased any worries on the elderly sculptor’s mind (he was 72 at the time of the dedication of the memorial) concerning the almost decade-long project. Reading the correspondence amongst the men behind the memorial-making powerhouse demystifies the colossal tourist attraction while at the same time enhancing my appreciation for the brilliant architectural and sculptural unity of an icon.

This exhibition is located in the Special Exhibit Gallery on the main floor of the Robert H. Smith Visitor Education Center, open daily through December 19, 2008 during regular visitor hours.

Ms. Little is a 2008 Summer Intern at President Lincoln’s Cottage
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