THE MANY IMAGES OF LINCOLN
The following magazine article presented in four pages was written for the April 1995 edition of "Antique Trader" by Harold Holzer. Harold Holzer is widely respected as one of the country's leading authorities on the political culture of 19th century America, Lincoln, and the Civil War iconography. Holzer currently serves as Chief Communications officer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Adjunct Professor of History at Pace University. From 1989 through 1992, Holzer was director of the New York State Lincoln on Democracy Project. He is the author of nine books on Lincoln and the Civil War era. He has been awarded the Baroness-Lincoln Award of New York's Civil War Round Table and the Award of Achievement of the Lincoln Group of New York.
For the Lincoln Assassination Anniversary, two inspiring new Lincoln sculptures by artist James Nance - dual portraits - unite traditions of the past with artistic techniques of the present
From Leonard Wells Volk to Daniel Chester French, dozens of fondly remembered American sculptors have built their reputations by portraying the quintessentially American face of Abraham Lincoln, who died 130 years ago this week.
Volk and French's works - the famous life-mask and the massive Lincoln Memorial figure, respectively - are among the best known Lincoln sculptures ever created. But their acclaimed interpretations have been supplemented through the years by literally hundreds of lesser known sculptures, good and bad alike, by both obscure and known artists of the past and present. If nothing else, the ubiquity of such works has earned Lincoln the right to be called the most sculpted man in our history. No other American has been so frequently immortalized for so long in plaster, bronze, and stone. And few sculpted faces, in turn, have proven more enduringly inspiring to American audiences, no matter how different their backgrounds or politics.
How else to explain, for example, why Presidents as unlike as Richard M. Nixon and Bill Clinton would, 25 years apart, select for their respective Oval Offices the identical bust of their illustrious predecessor?
Over the generations, such works have typically depicted one of two Lincolns: the rough hewn, clean shaven prairie attorney; or the melancholy, beleaguered statesman - more often than not the latter. But until this spring - virtually on the eve of the 130th anniversary of the assassination that catapulted Lincoln permanently into the realm of national sainthood - no sculptor, living or dead, had ever attempted to depict both Lincolns simultaneously: the rising star of the Illinois frontier, and the Great Emancipator of American myth. And needless to say, no artist has ever responded to this dual challenge by producing likenesses that compare favorably with the handful of precious portrait busts made of Lincoln from life in the 1860s.
This distinction can now be claimed by Texas born and Oklahoma raised James J. Nance, who recently moved his studio to - appropriately enough - Lincoln Avenue, in the scenic artistic community of Loveland, Colorado. Loveland is the site of a popular annual sculpture festival and home to three conveniently located bronze foundries and some 200 fellow sculptors. Alone among them - alone among all of the sculptors who have ever attempted to model Lincoln's face - Nance has created two Lincolns at the same time.
A rugged looking, bushy-browed - one might even say Lincolnesque - Vietnam veteran, Nance was a professional pilot by training and experience in both war and peace, who slowly but surely developed his passion and skill for what in Lincoln's day was called "the plastic art." Nance went from the Air Force to Northwest Airlines, working full time as a captain, and concedes he might never have made the leap from one career to the other had not fate intervened. Working to clear leaves from his rooftop gutters one day, he fell off a ladder and hit the ground hard - on his head! " I received a richly deserved concussion and put a respectable dent in the asphalt." he jokes. But the injury was serious. Nance eventually recovered, but realized at once that he might never again be permitted to fly a commercial plane. He decided the time had come to abandon the throttle for the chisel. "I believe it was Julie Andrews in the sound of music who said, "when God closes a door, he opens a window. I think in my case that was true. I loved flying, but I love this new career even more."
To prepare himself for his transformation, Nance had logged thousands of ground hours studying at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and Design and the Atelier Lack, taking courses in anatomy, portraiture, and sculpture. By 1989 he had honed his gifts sufficiently to win a coveted first place prize at the Johnston International Figure sculpture competition sponsored by the International Sculpture Center in Washington DC.
Nance's great ambition remained to sculpt the historical figure he has most admired for his entire life: Abraham Lincoln. He pondered, he sketched, he dreamed - but for an agonizingly long spell, he felt none of the raw inspiration artists need to propel them into action. Then in 1993 came the breakthrough. Nance was reading an essay by historian David H. Donald which contended that no artist ever captured fully Lincoln's mysteriously complex spirit. This was Nance's epiphany. "As soon as I read this," he recalls, "I decided I could take up the challenge myself."
The most exhaustive research would follow, which Nance felt was required, as he puts it, "to create a fresh insight into Mr. Lincoln's personality." And like most all the sculptors who have turned to the Lincoln theme since the assassination on April 14th 1865, Nance commenced his effort determined to capture only Lincoln the President - wearied by office, anguished by inner melancholy, and haunted by the unspeakable human sacrifices of the bloody Civil War. Eventually Nance would succeed in producing just such a likeness - but not before some surprising twists and turns in the long road every artist travels between inspiration and realization.
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