CONCORD — Dedicated on May 30, 1922, the Lincoln Memorial is celebrating its centennial this year. A hundred years is a long time, but it’s well less than half as long as the Republic has existed. Yet does any building hold a comparable place in the American imagination? That hold has a sacral aspect, as the White House and Mount Vernon, the US Capitol and Independence Hall, do not.
Part of the sacredness is architectural. Henry Bacon’s design takes the form of a Greek temple. That style seems inevitable now. But “The Lincoln Memorial Illustrated,” which runs at the Concord Museum through Feb. 26, includes among its 80 or so items two proposals for the Memorial from John Russell Pope. He’s best known as the architect of the Jefferson Memorial and the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, but their designs look nothing like these — or Bacon’s. In one, the Memorial takes the form of a ziggurat; in the other, a pyramid with a neoclassical portico on each side.
Even as ziggurat or pyramid, the Memorial would still partake of the sacred. That’s because of the man it commemorates. Abraham Lincoln, the supreme American martyr, led the nation through its supreme, deadliest trial. All that marble and granite looks pristine and unyielding, but it’s blood they rest on. And the shedding of that blood relates to what remains, still, all these decades later, the fundamental challenge to American society posed at the beginning of the Declaration of Independence: to abide by the “self-evident” truth that all men are created equal.
So even as neoclassical grandeur makes the Memorial look eternal, it retains a contemporaneity and relevance that only the Vietnam Veterans Memorial can begin to approach among civic monuments. That’s true in popular culture. Jimmy Stewart’s title character goes there to commune with Lincoln’s spirit, in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939). Bob Staake’s truly inspired “O” cover for The New Yorker, which is in the show, used the Memorial to celebrate Barack Obama’s election in 2008.
That contemporaneity and relevance applies to politics, too. The same year that “Mr. Smith” was released, Marian Anderson gave her concert on the steps of the Memorial — after the all-white Daughters of the American Revolution denied her access to Constitution Hall because she was Black. It was also on the steps of the Memorial, 24 years later, that Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech.” A short video on the Memorial’s construction includes brief glimpses of both events.
Two other examples, both in the show, speak to the Memorial’s unique place as an expression of national emotion or conscience. Among the nine political cartoons on display is Bill Mauldin’s famous drawing of Lincoln’s statue, head in hands, weeping, after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In Anthony Benedetto’s painting “Why Lincoln Matters,” the president’s statue gazes at a mud-spattered American flag. The painting was the artist’s response to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Bush v. Gore. The painter Anthony Benedetto is likely better known to you by the name he uses in his day job, Tony Bennett.
The show has been jointly organized by two Stockbridge institutions, the Norman Rockwell Museum and Chesterwood, the studio of Daniel Chester French, the sculptor of the Lincoln statue. There are six works by Rockwell on display. As for French, at the top of the stairs, outside the show proper, what greets museum-goers is a small 1927 cast of the French statue. Also in the show are several maquettes and French’s account book. That seems a bit odd, though not as odd as there being two French hand castings and just one of Lincoln’s. It’s his left hand, and it was big.
The range of works so far cited gives some sense of how varied “The Lincoln Memorial Illustrated” is, but only some. There are also children’s book illustrations, photographs, a pair of very shiny pennies, two five-dollar bills, Lincoln stamps, and four comic book covers. The most eye-catching is Ernie Chan’s “Monumental Menace,” from a 1978 Captain America and the Falcon number. It show the Lincoln statue, rising up from his seat, bashing Cap’s mighty shield. A supervillain has brought the statue to life and made it — made him? — his underling.
It’s important to remember that French has Lincoln seated. The statue is massive — atop a 10-foot-high pedestal, it’s 19 feet square, with the head an additional 3 feet in height — but it’s not majestic, or not in any monarchical sense. Nothing so well illustrates the democratic nature of Lincoln in this setting than how French has chosen to present him. The statue doesn’t show Lincoln on horseback or gesticulating or orating. Sitting down, he is as unimposing as such a large marble figure can be. The statue’s scale announces its subject’s greatness in one way. Its unheroic posture does so in a very different way. Residing in this temple of democracy isn’t a god, but a fellow citizen. There’s a big difference between sitting down and being enthroned.
THE LINCOLN MEMORIAL ILLUSTRATED
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.