Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 2, 1999
Frederick C. Moffatt Errant Bronzes: George Grey Barnard’s Statues of Abraham Lincoln Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998. 240 pp.; 107 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (0874136288)
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Frederick C. Moffatt has written a handsomely illustrated and abundantly researched book on George Grey Barnard’s somewhat notorious statue of Abraham Lincoln. Part of the American Arts Series of the University of Delaware Press, this volume contributes to the growing number of publications on American sculptural history. Over the years, this series has held a special commitment to this underserved field with its publication of such prestigious tomes as Wayne Craven’s Sculpture in America (originally printed in 1968). Although Moffatt surveys the bibliographic field of American sculpture until 1992 in his introduction and in further detail in a footnote (pp. 9-10, 208), it is important to note that two new books have appeared in the past several years that are central to his study of Lincoln and the public monument: Kirk Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997) and Albert Boime, The Unveiling of the National Icons: A Plea for Patriotic Iconoclasm in a Nationalist Era (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Moffatt’s book focuses on Barnard’s statue, Abraham Lincoln, which was completed in 1916, exhibited in New York City, and installed in Cincinnati, Ohio, on the eve of World War I. Moreover, it traces the history of several other castings, two of which were erected in Manchester, England, in 1919 and Louisville, Kentucky, in 1922. Moffatt “positions the statues at the center of a broad examination of patronage and politics, preferring to study them as cultural markers that relate to human conflict and historical accident” (p. 9). The book is divided into six parts, most of which contain two chapters. Part One outlines the history of the Taft family, their settlement in Cincinnati, and their commissioning of Barnard’s Lincoln statue. Part Two reviews the artist’s early life and work. Part Three traces the history of the first two castings of the Lincoln statue, its exhibition in New York City, and the Anglo-American scheme to send a cast to London’s Parliament Square. Part Four, the heart of the book, outlines the sources of controversy aroused by this sculpture both within the political sphere—the claiming of the historical legacy of Lincoln—and within the artistic sphere—the howling debate that raged between American academics and modernists. The English commission, the sculpture’s eventual placement in Manchester, England, and the historical conditions of the Louisville monument comprise Part Five. The urban renewal projects that refurbished the statues constitute Part Six.

The three Lincoln sculptures raised much controversy in the years surrounding World War I. Indeed, there was something very different about this image of Lincoln, particularly in comparison with the more popular sculptures produced by Augustus Saint Gaudens and Daniel Chester French. In its uncompromising realism, Barnard’s sculpture was considered “gloriously ugly,” “touchingly pathetic,” and “awkward . . . ill-proportioned and disfigured” (p. 7). To some viewers, the refined images of St. Gaudens and French, Moffatt explains, “attached the recollection of Lincoln to a unified formal presentation that commands authority and admiration.” Barnard’s Abraham Lincoln, Moffat continues, was associated with “material dissolution, social degradation, and despair” (p. 33). Yet, to others, this sculpture suggested “the ethos of progressive democracy,” and Lincoln, “the embodiment of a great but as yet in many ways uncultivated democracy” (p. 90).

At the core of Moffatt’s study are several questions: What did George Grey Barnard intend in this unorthodox treatment of Lincoln? Why did the socially and politically conservative Taft family of Cincinnati commission such a work? What were the critical and popular responses to the sculptures? Why did the sculptures elicit such over-wrought criticism? As William Howard Taft asserted, “the language that has been hurled [at the Barnard sculpture] is so utterly excessive in its abusive character that it must have been prompted by something other than a mere consideration of the statue as a memorial to Lincoln” (p. 127). Although Taft saw this vituperation as a veiled attack on himself and his political ambitions (which might, in fact, have been true), he also understood that more was at stake in this imagery of Lincoln than met the eye. In fact, the historical legacy of Lincoln on the eve of World War I, the fate of the public monument, and the ebbing of American Renaissance ideals all played a part in the life of this fascinating sculpture.

Moffatt is successful only in part in tackling these central issues. He explains that Barnard intended to represent the prepresidential “Lincoln of the People” (p. 78) or “Lincoln the Man” (p. 97) and sought a model for his sculpture who originated from the same humble social class and regional background of Kentucky as the Lincoln portrayed in Ida Tarbell’s biography of 1895. However, Moffat assumes a political radicalism on the part of Barnard that is never substantiated in the text. To be sure, Barnard at times concerned himself with the issue of labor, as in his monumental sculptural program for the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg. Still, these didactic and moralizing sculptures, The Unbroken Law: Love and Labor and The Broken Law: The Paradise that Fails because it is not the Fruit of Man’s Labor, presented labor as a sacred and noble endeavor, removed from the exigencies of contemporary workers’ lives. Rather than addressing the political tensions of the labor movement, this program provided a celebration of the American work ethic and served the forces of social conservatism by reaffirming order in a time of rapid social, demographic, and technological change.

In fact, one may understand this construction of Lincoln as consonant with nineteenth-century genre types. As with the rough and tumble image of Uncle Sam—tall, gangly, uncouth, and not unlike Barnard’s representation of Lincoln— this ungainly male type came to stand for a particular brand of American democracy—an idea one critic might have sensed in his description of Lincoln as the embodiment of “uncultivated democracy.” Moreover, the yeoman farmer or unsophisticated bumpkin commonly served as both the butt of jokes and a standard of ideal citizenship—independent, hard-working, awkward, and clumsy. Thus Barnard’s Abraham Lincoln may, in fact, be the progeny of the most American of social types, while also linked by historical circumstance to the midwestern soil.

Moffatt’s book centers on the Taft commission: Why would such a conservative patrician family commission a sculpture of Lincoln as the common man? Moffatt addresses this question obliquely and leaves the reader unsatisfied with the results. Perhaps a regional perspective is in order. The common-man image of Lincoln, although linked to earlier nineteenth-century American forms, may have signified the Midwest to early twentieth-century audiences in its divergence from the representation of Lincoln as a “classically-proportioned New England Puritan” (p. 81). So, is it possible to imagine that the Taft family wished to distinguish itself geographically with this tribute to the famous president? On the national and international stage, it is clear that Lincoln had come to stand for many things to many people—a symbol that both the Progressive Teddy Roosevelt and the conservative William Howard Taft could embrace. As the embodiment of democracy and patriotism at a time of national crisis, Lincoln served as a useful tool to politicians who wished to legitimize the country’s entry into World War I. Nonetheless, William Howard Taft, who supported the Cincinnati Lincoln, refused to back the sculpture within the international arena. Indeed, this “man of the people” may have served regional interests while nevertheless bespeaking working-class radicalism to conservative patricians concerned with Bolshevism on the world stage.

Barnard’s Abraham Lincoln received an enormous amount of criticism, and Moffatt successfully documents both the pitch and volume of this vituperation. Within the pages of the conservative Art World, Frederick Ruchstull, sculptor and founding member of the National Sculpture Society, raged over the figure, calling it a “hobo-democrat,” “radicalism in rags,” and a “disease in bronze.” He blustered: “The real Lincoln descended from hardy Virginian stock that only momentarily experienced hard times in Kentucky. Barnard’s mongrel, white-trash, gnarled and deformed rail-splitter from the backwoods of Kentucky was thus an imagined aberration” (p.150). Even Daniel Chester French, who criticized Barnard’s sculpture harshly “but honored his adversary’s earnest intentions,” retreated from the polemics put forward in these pages. (p. 152) This caustic attack stemmed from two closely allied sources: the conservative politics of the age and the perceived challenge of modernism to the academic tradition. While the U.S. government stifled any suggestion of working-class radicalism during the war with the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, Barnard’s Lincoln—the working man—came very close in some eyes to embodying these political ends. Artistic expression had, in fact, entered this political debate—as exemplified in the rhetoric of Ruckstull who lumped modernism and realism into one politically degenerate camp. Indeed, both critics and proponents of the Barnard sculpture agreed on its excessive realism. To conservatives like Ruckstull, realism served as a threat because, as Moffatt explains, it “responded to the real experiences of the underclass” (p. 127). In refuting the high idealism of classical art, the language of realism, often accompanied by working-class subjects, came to define a new American art to other critics, such as Mary Fantin Roberts, writing in The Touchstone and other progressive journals. Thus it is not surprising that Barnard’s Lincoln and its supporters were accused by the likes of Ruckstull as being “stricken with the disease of Bolshevism” (p. 128).

Moffatt’s book addresses an important subject in American sculpture and does so with an abundant amount of archival research. However, the text is bogged down within a morass of primary documentation that overshadows any thesis the author wishes to present. For example, the reader learns a great deal about Cincinnati, its social history, artistic production, and patronage—more than is necessary to understand the meanings of the sculpture. In addition, we are presented with the details of the Lincoln Memorial project in Washington—which exactly coincided with the commissioning and production of Barnard’s Abraham Lincoln—but the author fails to make the necessary connections to the Taft commission. Some footnotes are incorrect or missing, suggesting that Moffatt himself had trouble managing the enormous amount of information that he supplies but never synthesizes into a coherent whole. The book is beautifully illustrated with contemporary and archival photographs, but the lack of figure numbers complicates the study of these images. In short, if one is willing to wade through the dense detail of this book, one will find the fascinating story of an unusual American sculpture.

Melissa Dabakis
Professor and Chair, Art History Department, Kenyon College

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