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Light For Lincoln’s Statute

July 2024
2min read

A noble portrait was grotesque, until the shadows were changed

One of America’s great shrines is the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. In the shadowed silence of the great building the statue of Abraham Lincoln, by Daniel Chester French, broods in eloquent majesty.

Yet when the statue was first put in the memorial, the effect was very different. Strange lights and shadows touched the marble lace: the effect which the sculptor had sought was missing, and in its place was a masklike countenance that seemed almost a mockery.

Sculptor French made this horrifying discovery in the spring of 1921. just after the statue had been placed in the building. He had worked for eight years on the model, believed that it would do justice to its subject, and he came to the Memorial to put a few finishing touches on the marble.

The building itself, designed by Architect Henry Bacon, was completed, and the interior—of Indiana limestone, with a Tennessee marble floor—was deeply impressive. There were no windows; the light was to radiate through the translucent marble ceiling, and through the opening ;it the entrance, between lofty columns.

Daniel French climbed the steps of the Memorial and came to an amazed halt.

The head of the statue had a strange, startled appearance. There seemed to be something wrong, something vitally and terribly wrong. The lace looked grotesque, flat, white, frightened.

Though some daylight came in through the marble ceiling, it was not nearly enough to offset the terrific glare thrown up by the polished marble floor and—most of all—by the gleaming reflecting pool out in front. The combination of these two sources of light brought all the shadows in reverse.

To be well shown, a piece of statuary must be lighted from above, so that the shadows will fall under the eyebrows, under the nose, under the chin, and so on. In this case, because the light from below was so much stronger than the light from above, the effect was exactly the opposite—and the whole expression of the face was drastically, ruinously chanced.

The time for the dedication of the Memorial was imminent. Any improvement that might finally be made in the lighting arrangements would have to come alter the great Memorial had formally been thrown open to the public.

The dedication came on Memorial Day, May 30, 1922. Alter the ceremonies were over, French and Bacon settled down to the long, laborious task of finding some way to put the statue in the proper light. They made innumerable experiments, and finally saw that artificial lighting was called for. An appeal for help was sent to the General Electric Company.

The engineeers went to work on the model still in French’s studio in New York and reported, finally, that it would be possible to devise a method of illumination that would create the right effect—but that the job would be complicated and quite expensive.

It could not be done unless Congress would appropriate more money. Then, just as the men were preparing to appeal for the appropriation, Henry Bacon died, at the age of 58. For a time the project lapsed. Congress finally came to understand the urgency of the case, and eventually money was voted.

With the money in sight, the engineers evolved a plan. A louver panel would he inserted in the ceiling, with metal slats set at such an angle that the lighting could not he seen from the entrance. There would be a control room from which the light could he varied.

Three more years went by. Then, finally, it was done. The entire appearance of the statue was redeemed: it now looked as its creator had hoped.

Now the lighting brought out all of the strength and power in Lincoln’s lace, all the tenderness and understanding. The millions of visitors who came to the Memorial could look up and feel the majesty and the peace of an undying American legend.

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