Monday, August 22, 2011

Henry K. Brown's Much-Maligned "Abraham Lincoln" Statue - Union Square

Lincoln's suit worn with a Roman toga caused much comment -- photo by Alice Lum
In the years immediately following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on the night of Good Friday, April 14, 1865, grieving communities across the nation initiated plans to erect memorials and statues to the fallen President.   Among the first was New York City.

The Union League Club started the ball rolling. In 1868 the Republican political organization began selling “subscriptions” to garner donations from the community to pay for the project. As the money flowed in, the Club commissioned sculptor Henry Kirke Brown to design the monument.

Brown was well-known to New Yorkers, having produced the masterful equestrian statue of George Washington that stood at the south end of Union Square Park. The bronze statue was recognized internationally as among of the greatest of contemporary equestrian works.

Brown’s efforts in depicting Abraham Lincoln would fall short of the mark in the public’s eye.

By September of 1871 the monument was nearly finished. Cast by the Wood Bronze Company of Philadelphia, the statue had been completed a year earlier and carefully guarded from public view in a bonded warehouse on South Street.  Weighing almost 3,000 pounds, it stood just under 11 feet tall. Brown had inexplicably chosen to dress the President in modern attire while wearing a Roman toga over his shoulder. In his left hand he held the Proclamation of Emancipation.

New Yorkers gathered on September 17 as workers assembled the monument.

The base of the monument, the largest stone ever quarried in the United States and weighing over 17 tons, was placed on the 9-1/2 square foot sub-base over a 5-foot deep foundation.  A second stone, at 16,000 pounds, was topped by an 8,000-pound cap; forming a 24-foot high pedestal for the statue. The gray granite blocks from Dix Island, Maine had been highly polished and etched with 36 stars representing each state of the Union during the Lincoln administration.

And then the statue was erected.

The New York Times reported “A frightful object has been placed in Union-square. It is said to be a statue of a man who deserves to be held in lasting remembrance as a true patriot, a sincere, unselfish, noble-hearted chief in times of great trouble and perplexity—Abraham Lincoln. But it does not resemble Mr. Lincoln.”

The article lambasted Brown’s choice of Lincoln’s clothing. “The mind has not conceived such a pair of pantaloons as that which the artist has put on this statue...the designer of the work has clapped a Roman toga over the upper part of the figure, thus combining the costume of the past and the present in a manner never yet dreamt of by caricaturists.

“There never was such a statue done in this world before. It is like the hideous nightmare which people have after supping on roast pork and lobster salad,” the writer complained.

The newspaper offered to accept subscriptions to remove the statue and ship it to Chicago where “works of art of this kind are highly appreciated.”  It further warned nurse maids to avoid that area of the park, lest the children in their care might mistake the statue for the bogeyman.

The criticisms were unrelenting for decades. When the statue of Benjamin Franklin was unveiled in Printing House Square a year later, the same newspaper sighed with relief at its high quality, saying that the City was “discouraged since Mr. Brown’s ‘Lincoln’ was set up in Union-square.”

The memorial was upgraded in 1875 with a low stone wall, engraved with the words “…with malice toward none; charity toward all.”

By 1875, when the stone wall was erected around the statue's base, commercial interests were creeping onto 14th Street behind -- photo NYPL Collection
The elaborate new setting did not, however, diminish criticism. On January 4, 1896 Architecture and Building wrote “The angularity and ungainliness of the figure are marked, and the effect upon the spectator is painful rather than otherwise. There is nothing in the face to indicate genius, or any noble quality, with perhaps the exception of earnestness of purpose and determination.”

Three years later Layton Crippen wrote a scathing article for The New York Times entitled “Unsightly New York Statues,” in which he included an etching of Brown’s Lincoln.  “New York is just now waking up to the fact that private donors and public committees have been allowed to place a large number of painfully ugly monuments in positions where they can do the most harm…But the most difficult problem is that of doing away with or replacing with tolerable productions the old eyesores.”

By the turn of the century, an ornate cast iron railing had been added to the wall -- photo NYPL Collection

Thirty-six years after its unveiling, the statue was still being panned.  In its October 1917 edition, Art World noted “Perhaps the finest equestrian statue in the United States is the ‘Washington’ in Union Square, New York, by H. K. Brown.  But across the square is the statue of Lincoln, also by Brown, and that is perhaps the worst Lincoln the country had…Here we have the best and worst work of Brown on one square in New York.”

Despite the artistic condemnation, the statue was the site of speeches and celebrations for decades. Flowers adorned the memorial every year on Decoration Day (now known as Memorial Day). In 1877, for instance, with the memory of the Civil War still vivid, the Lincoln statue was the most decorated in the park. A laurel wreath was placed on Lincoln’s head, the statue was wound with sprays of wisteria, begonias and greenery; while a panel spelled out “Emancipation” in white carnations.

Ornate floral garlands embellish the statue for Decoration Day festivities -- photo NYPL Collection
Both the Washington and Lincoln statues sat on triangular traffic islands created by the oval-shape of Union Square. When they were erected, the park was surrounded by elegant brownstone mansions that created a pleasing backdrop for them.

By the early 1920s, 14th Street was lined with tall commercial buildings.  On May 21, 1922 The Times noted that “As the square gave way to business houses, the background and surroundings became less favorable to a showing of…the monuments.”

Lincoln's statue was diminished by the commercial buildings that now lined 14th Street by World War I -- photo NYPL Collection
A plan to renovate Union Square that included moving the statues was proposed. Although the Washington statue sat on the spot where, reportedly, New Yorkers acclaimed the general on Evacuation Day, November 25, 1783 and had stood in its original spot longer than any other statue in the city, the plan was approved.

Lincoln lies rather ungracefully awaiting removal to his new location -- photo NYPL Collection
The two statues were repositioned in a straight line down the middle of the park – Lincoln at the north end facing south, Lafayette in the middle and Washington at the southern tip.

Reminiscent of the speeches and celebrations centered around the Lincoln statue in Victorian times, a ceremony was held here on February 12, 1942 by New York veterans and Boy Scouts.  Sparked by the surprising and demoralizing news of German and Japanese victories, “Lincoln Day” was intended to rally patriotism and optimism among citizens nationwide.  One Chinese-American boy scaled the pedestal to lay a wreath of flowers forming a “V” for victory at Lincoln’s feet.

By 1955 Lincoln had seen better days and The New York Times deemed it “weatherbeaten.” The statue was completely restored in 1992.

One star for each state of the Union during Lincoln's presidency surround his pedestal.  photo by Alice Lum
Today Brown’s Abraham Lincoln stands stoically on its pedestal staring southward towards the much more famous George Washington. While no longer maligned, it is more often simply overlooked.

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