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Senior Vice President for External Affairs
April 15, 2006
(Recipient Name and Address Omitted)
I write upon learning that an artists’ competition is underway for a commission to create a monumental bronze statue of Lincoln for the Old Dayton Courthouse, and that the sculptor James Nance has submitted a proposal for this work.
I have known and admired Jim Nance’s work for several years, and consider his Lincoln works, “Prairie Lawyer” and “Immortal Conscience,” to be among the best-sculpted likenesses of the 16th President that I have ever seen. A you know, I have been a student of Lincoln imagery for more than 30 years, and have examined, researched, and written about the great Lincoln sculptures of the past century-and-a-half in books, articles, and monographs. I am familiar with every work created from 1860 onward, and believe I am not exaggerating when I say the “Prairie Lawyer” in particular is as good a likeness of the pre-presidential Lincoln as any ever produced – or likely to be produced by any artist. Considering that it was done in our lifetime, not Lincoln’s without the benefit of exposure to the subject himself, but rather from one-dimensional images, it is all the more remarkable.
Happily, there are many fine sculptors working in the Lincoln field these days, and Jim Nance is certainly among the best. I am sure his talent, record, and commitment would make him an excellent choice for this exciting commission. I have no doubt that his work would do honor to Lincoln’s Dayton connection, as made so well known to so many readers by Lloyd Ostendorf. The family could not have a better advocate in bronze to translate this association – this history- into bronze. I am confident, writing on this high holy day of the Lincoln Calendar, that the greatest of our presidents would literally be in good hands in the hands of sculptor James Nance.
By Douglas Clark
Lincoln Portrait Sculptures by James Nance
The following magazine article 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 twenty five 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.Magazine article written in 1995 for Antique Trader Magazine on new Lincoln portrait sculptures by James Nance. Harold Holzer is the Vice President of External Affairs for the Metropolitan Museum of art in New York City. Mr. Holzer is author of 25 books on Abraham Lincoln and is the recognized leading authority on Abraham Lincoln art. Mr. Holzer is also Co-Chair of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.
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.
Generations earlier, one of the men who knew Abraham Lincoln best, his private secretary John G. Nicolay, had insisted: “there are many pictures of Lincoln; there is no portrait of him.”
“In a countenance of strong lines and rugged masses like Lincoln’s”, he wrote, “the lift of an eye, the movements of prominent muscles created a much wider facial play than in rounded immobile countenances. Lincoln’s features were the despair of every artist who undertook his portrait.”
Nicolay recalled “nearly a dozen, one after another, soon after the first nomination to the presidency, attempt the task,” with results which he felt were “no more like the man as the grain of sand is to the mountain, as the dead to the living.” Concluded Nicolay: “graphic art was powerless before a face that moved through a thousand delicate graduations of line and contour.” Still the artists poured into Springfield, Illinois, observing Lincoln as he worked, and producing unique – if not always reliable – records of the Illinois Republican on the eve of the presidency.
Interestingly, the very first — and perhaps the most successful — of all the life portraits of Abraham Lincoln was a sculpture. It was the work of Leonard Wells Volk, a cousin of the wife of Lincoln’s arch-rival in politics, Stephen A. Douglas. But politics seldom inhibited artistic expression (besides which Volk had already made a sculpture of “The Little Giant” by the time he first glimpsed Lincoln on the stump with Douglas in the Great Debates of 1858). Volk decided immediately he must sculpt the tall Springfield Republican, and proceeded to exact from Lincoln a vague promise that he would one day pose for him. Two years passed before Volk encountered Lincoln again, this time in a Chicago courtroom where Lincoln was pleading a case. Again Volk asked for sittings, and again Lincoln expressed willingness — along with regrets that he simply did not have at his leisure the long hours needed to do so.
Volk had an idea — and it would change forever the history of the sculpted Lincoln. To save Lincoln from time-consuming sitting. Volk proposed making a plaster cast of his face, which he would then use to make his bust portrait. Lincoln reluctantly agreed to submit to the process, but found the ordeal, on March 31, 1860, “anything but agreeable.” With straws inserted into his nostrils to permit him to breathe, cold wet plaster was applied, and when it tightened around his features and dried, Volk grabbed hold of it and pulled it off in one piece, tugging some facial hairs out along with it and literally bringing tears to Lincoln’s eyes.
A later sculptor of Lincoln, George Grey Barnard, called the life mask which Volk then produced from this mold “the most wonderful face left to us…his powerful constructions reaching like steps of a pyramid from chin to ear, eye and brain, as if his force took birth in thought within, conceived in architecture without, building to the furthermost limits of his face.” Understandably, Barnard and a host of his fellow artists would come eventually to rely on this landmark portrait as a model for their own memorable works. Ultimately, so would James Nance,
But first, Volk himself used the mask to aid him in the project for which he had first designed it: a portrait bust. Lincoln would eventually visit the sculptor’s Chicago studio for a few sittings in April 1860, to aid in the finishing touches; and in the end, the subject seemed eminently pleased with the result. “There,” he proclaimed with wonder, “is the animal himself!”
Ironically, Volk never received for this work the attention or praise lavished on the life mask model he had created merely as a tool for creating it. But quickly sensing the commercial possibilities of his efforts, Volk decided, once his reluctant sitter unexpectedly won the Republican presidential nomination in May 1860, to continue to focus on the Lincoln theme. He would now make a heroic statue.
On May 20, 1860, Volk arrived in Springfield to ask Lincoln if he might make plaster casts of his large, sinewy hands as models for his more ambitious work. Lincoln consented, but cautioned that his right hand that day was unnaturally puffy and swollen from endless handshaking the night before with post-nomination well-wishers. Volk simply suggested that Lincoln grasp something to hide the swelling while the cast was being taken. The candidate marched off to his woodshed to saw off a piece of broom handle to hold, and as Lincoln returned, he was trimming the sawn end with a pocket knife. When Volk remarked that it was not necessary that the prop be smooth, Lincoln sheepishly replied: “Oh, well, I thought I would like to have it nice.” The hands cast, Volk now proceeded on a long career of Lincoln sculpting — with mixed results.
His great ambition — a full-length statue —was ultimately achieved, but without attracting much praise or attention. That may be because by the time he completed his work, like so many sculptors who would follow, Volk decided to abandon the beardless Lincoln he had known personally and substitute the bewhiskered man who left Illinois for Washington, never to return, in 1861. Volk’s statues, copies of which stand in Springfield and Rochester, somehow fail to convey either Lincoln with much conviction — an odd result, considering Volk’s unparalleled exposure to the living man.
He fared far better with adaptations, in both plaster and bronze, of his life masks, hand-casts, and busts — some small-sized, some larger-than-life, some nude, others draped — but all evoking the vigor of the prewar Lincoln. George Gray Barnard called one of these bronze variants “the best thing done in Lincoln’s lifetime” — even though the bust he praised, like many of the others dated 1860,” was likely cast between the 1880’s and the turn of the century. Motivated— both artistically and commercially — by the huge outpouring of public interest in Lincoln portraits following his 1865 death, Volk made Lincoln his principal industry for the rest of his life. No one ever did more to originate, or perpetuate, the Lincoln image in the sculptural art. But Volk was not the only sculptor to pose Abraham Lincoln from life. The first portrait in any medium to show him with his new beard, in fact, was also a sculpture, the work of a former New York stone mason named Thomas Dow Jones. Jones had been a professional sculptor for three years when the citizens of Columbus, Ohio, where he was then living, commissioned him to make a bust from life of the president-elect. Jones was something of an eccentric, given to theatrical mannerisms and outrageous costumes. But Lincoln took a liking to him, and shortly after Christmas, 1860, he agreed to pose for him for an hour each day in his temporary post-election offices in a Springfield hotel room.
On one amusing occasion, Jones’ clay model was nearly destroyed. Lincoln had been reading his mail while posing, and happened upon a suspicious-looking package that both men feared might turn out to be what Jones called “an infernal machine or torpedo.” Recent letters to Lincoln had included enough threats to make such a scenario seem possible. As a precaution, Lincoln and Jones together braced it against the bust-in-progress before opening it, using the sculpture, in Jones’ words, “as an earthwork, so, in case it exploded, it would not harm either of us.” As it turned out, the package contained nothing more threatening than the innocent gift of a home-made pig’s tail whistle, and Lincoln spent the next hour merrily practicing on it.
Nonetheless, Jones encouraged Lincoln to keep busy with his burdensome correspondence during subsequent sittings, hoping to keep him from lapsing into inexpressive sadness, as his thoughts turned increasingly to the perilous future both he and the Union were facing. Jones would describe Lincoln as “a very difficult study,” explaining that as the date of Lincoln’s departure for Washington drew nearer, “a deep-seated melancholy seemed to take possession of his soul…the former Lincoln no longer visible…his face…transformed. from mobility into an iron mask.’
But Jones underestimated his work. When Lincoln himself saw the completed bust for the first time, he exclaimed: ” I think It looks very much like the critter,” and the State of Ohio liked the handsome sculpture well enough to pay Jones more than $9,600 to copy it in marble to decorate the State Capitol.
The unprecedented burdens of office and war might understandably have compelled Lincoln the President to refuse subsequent requests by artists for time-consuming sittings. Instead, he made himself even more accessible than he had been as presidential candidate and president-elect, welcoming portrait artists, history painters— and more sculptors — to the White House in the dark years of his life there.
In late 1863, for example, only a few days before traveling to Gettysburg to deliver his most famous presidential address, Lincoln agreed to visit Washington photographer Alexander Gardner to sit for a series of camera studies to help sculptress Sarah Fisher Ames create a bust portrait. Historians have long described the series of memorable photographs made that day as inspired by Lincoln’s imminent departure for Gettysburg. In fact, they were inspired by a sculptor — and her need for models. Mrs. Ames sold a marble version of the bust to Congress in 1868 for $2,000.
A year later, also in Washington, a 35-year-old Pennsylvanian named William Marshal Swayne was allowed to make a bas-relief medallion portrait of Lincoln from the flesh in the President’s White House office. Lincoln obliged him because Swayne intended to auction off the result for the benefit of Civil War wounded. Even though the result was primitive, when, later that year, Swayne was commissioned to do a full bust of Lincoln for yet another war charity, Lincoln immediately consented to sit again.
To model the work Swayne set up a temporary studio on the third floor of the Treasury Department across from the White House. One day, Lincoln was heard clomping up the outdoor wooden gangplank that led to the studio, climbed into the room through a window, and announced: I’ve come to sit if you want me.”
For the next several weeks (even as he was sitting simultaneously for a history painting in the White House), Lincoln obligingly returned almost every day to pose, admitting that the sessions rested him. He told stories, acted out his favorite Shakespearian soliloquies, and recited sentimental poetry, to the delight of eyewitnesses. If the resulting sculpture did not quite justify the time its illustrious sitter had devoted to its creation, it nonetheless represented a unique portrait of the President on the eve of re-nomination to the Presidency. Perhaps the fond memory of the sittings, rather than the bust itself, inspired Lincoln later to tell Swayne that his work was his very favorite “mud head.” Not surprisingly, it has not remained well-known into our own century.
The same certainly cannot be said of the efforts of a rival sculptor, Vinnie Ream, whose early work was perhaps even less accomplished than Swayne’s. As a teenage student of the sculptor Clark Mills in Washington, she had made an almost unrecognizable bas-relief of Lincoln based on a photograph, but believed she would improve if only granted life sittings. Her parents’ influential friends obligingly wrote Lincoln on her behalf and he consented to sit, How much time he subsequently granted her is a matter of debate, Doubters say she saw him only long enough to take measurements and make sketches. But Vinnie always insisted that she had spent half-an-hour a day with Lincoln for five months, and claimed that once Lincoln even confided to her uncharacteristically that he liked her company because she reminded him of his late son, Willie.
The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Vinnie’s bust portrait of Lincoln reflected undeniable life experience with her subject. And it certainly did make her an overnight sensation. Photographers took and sold carte-de-visite portraits of the bust, and artists painted the girl sculptress” posing alongside her creation.
Then, in 1866, Vinnie entered a competition for a $10,000 Congressional Commission to create a full-length Lincoln statue for the Capitol Rotunda. Lincoln’s widow, Mary, protested violently, warning that nothing but a mortifying failure can be anticipated, which will be a severe trial to the Nation & the World.” But Vinnie won the competition anyway, and sailed off to Rome to commence work on a statue in marble. At its unveiling in 1871, Vinnie had the last word — through her art. One critic, marveling at its “melancholy expressiveness,” called it an extraordinary work for a child.” The statue has remained a fixture in the Capitol Rotunda ever since.
The very last life portrait of Lincoln – exactly like the first – was a life mask, the work of Vinnie Ream’s own teacher, Clark Mills. Made on February 11, 1865— a day before Lincoln’s 56th and final birthday. It achieved nowhere near the fame of Volk’s effort five years earlier, but at least caused the subject no discomfort. Mills had invented a new process for making life masks, and all a subject needed to do to loosen it’s grip from his face was to twitch his facial muscles ;the mask would then fall into pieces into a cloth, and Mills would later reassemble it as a whole. The result was never adapted into a sculpture, perhaps because it showed a Lincoln so ravaged by his brief time in office that viewers mistook it for a harrowing death mask.
Studying these two masks — Volk’s 1860 casting and Mills’ effort of less than five years later — Lincoln’s White House aide John Hay made these poignant observations: “The first is of a man young for his years. The face has a clean, firm outline… the large mobile mouth (is) ready to speak, to shout, or laugh.. It is a face full of life, of energy, of vivid aspiration. The other is so sad and peaceful in its infinite repose… the mouth…fixed like that of an archaic statue; a look as one on whom sorrow and care had done their worst without victory is on all the features; the whole expression is of unspeakable sadness.”
But the history of Lincoln sculpture and statuary hardly ended with the depressing results of that final sitting with Clark Mills. Quite the opposite. John Roger’s mass-produced Council of War group in plaster became an immense best-seller and a fixture in American homes after the war. As for large, public sculpture, Thomas Ball’s imposing, once-admired, now politically incorrect Emancipation Group — showing Lincoln hovering with avuncular compassion over a half-naked, kneeling slave — was unveiled with much fanfare in Washington in 1876. Augustus Saint Gauden’s powerful, contemplative bronze statue, Lincoln the Man, was installed in Lincoln Park in Chicago In 1887, inspiring fellow sculptor Lorado Taft to observe that “its majestic melancholy is beyond my power to describe…there is something almost human, or — shall I say? —superhuman about it.” ‘Taft’s own fine sculpture was dedicated In Urbana, Illinois in 1927. And Gutzon Borglum’s intimate bronze of Lincoln seated on a bench has graced Newark, New Jersey since 1911 — inviting admirers to sit beside the Emancipator ever since.
The names of most other Lincoln sculptors — and, sadly,— their hundreds of works — have been largely forgotten: Charles Niehaus, Andrew O’Connor. and Frank Elwell. to name only three. Even Larkin Mead’s heroic statue of Lincoln for his tomb in Springfield. Illinois, paid for by public subscription, was admired only briefly. But still sculptors tried their hands, deprived of the living man, but determined to recreate him.
In our own century, two works of unsurpassed majesty did win critical and popular hearts alike, and have evolved into icons that summarize not only Lincoln’s standing in American history, but also the limitless possibilities of American creativity: Borglum’s massive granite head of Lincoln for his mountainside 1937 presidential gallery in Rapid City, South Dakota; and, of course, French’s great 1922 seated figure for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, which brought the Lincoln sculptural tradition full cycle — for there, gripping the arms of the massive chair on which he sits, are hands modeled after Volk’s 1860 life casts, enlarged to mythic proportions for the temple in which Lincoln’s memory is most often evoked in out own time.
And now the tradition continues, Lincoln sculpture itself has enjoyed something of a revival in recent years, as vivified by the national television exposure given to Lily Tolpo’s statue of Lincoln and Douglas in debate, unveiled in Freeport in 1992, and given renewed attention during the 1993 C-Span broadcasts of the debate recreations throughout Illinois,
James Nance entered this rarefied pantheon the hard way: through painstaking research, and by doing what no artist had attempted before — two simultaneous sculptures of two astonishingly different Abraham Lincoln’s.
My project had several false beginnings,” Nance admits. I first thought it would be a simple matter to model a portrait only of President Lincoln from photographs in numerous books.” But book illustrations did not offer sufficient variety, and Nance began writing to institutional repositories like The Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, and the Illinois State Historical Library in Springfield, and before long he had amassed a large collection of photographic poses. He hung so many pictures around his home, he laughs, that he soon began to see Lincoln’s face in his dreams — which only confused matters more. “I began to realize,” he says, “that in almost every photo session, Mr. Lincoln looked like a different person.” Here, he felt, was the essence of the problem David Donald had cited in the essay that first inspired his Lincoln project. So Nance next undertook pilgrimages to every important site associated with Lincoln’s life (in order to experience first hand his life’s surroundings”). Still, the Lincoln he wished to model remained elusive, even remote. Finally. Nance turned to the same source to which fellow sculptors had been referring for a century-and-a-quarter: the life mask by Leonard Wells Volk.
Here again, however, the path proved more complicated than Nance envisaged. “I ordered four different Volk masks from a variety of commercial sources, only to find that they were all highly distorted from years of making molds of molds of molds. One company sent me a mask which they advertised as a death mask! It turned out to be only a Volk reproduction which looked so bad it seemed like a death mask. These copies were a great disservice to Volk since they bore little resemblance to his work.”
Working in water-based clay, using his fingers rather than tools (to be “more in touch with the clay”), and using misting spray to keep his model soft as he began modeling it in large sweeping motions with his nimble fingers, Nance slowly began to give life to his own mud head” of the president he so admired.
But even with all of this concentrated study.” Nance recalls, “I eventually became frustrated and dissatisfied with my portrait of the President, I thought it was too stiff, too formal, and lacked feeling.” Nance’s experience had convinced him, ironically, that he could not portray Lincoln the President without also portraying Lincoln before he became president. “The President does not exist in a vacuum,” Nance maintains. “Lincoln’s regard for the constitution, his respect for the law, his moral convictions, and his determination were all developed in the prairie of Illinois.”
So Nance abruptly decided to store his sculpture-in-progress and turn to an entirely new theme: Lincoln the attorney, the younger man who he now strongly fell could not be regarded as a mere “footnote” to his later, more exalted life as commander-in-chief and emancipator. The sculptor returned to Fort Wayne, where once again the Lincoln Museum gave him permission to make a mold of a life mask — this time its pristine, early copy of an 1860 Volk, a casting so fine Nance could even detect the pores in Lincoln’s weather beaten skin.
Armed with this new model, which to Nance seemed almost as compelling and vivid as the living Lincoln who had sat for Volk In 1860, the sculptor turned with a vengeance to his new theme, sculpting a Lincoln in shirtsleeves and suspenders as he might have looked in a hot Illinois courtroom on any summer day in the late 1850’s, the face expressing anticipation, the shoulders tilted slightly. just as If the subject waits to make an objection, begin a summation, or hear the verdict of a jury.
Now Nance took this finished work and stored it out of view, and returned with new anticipation to the Presidential work he had discarded in such frustration. Suddenly, almost magically, the later Lincoln, too, sprang to life under his touch. “It was like I had to walk before I could run.” he remembers. The revised presidential Lincoln does not lean forward as does the pre-White House attorney; he leans slightly back in quiet confidence, eyes penetrating, face sad but commanding, a look on his face of a man who seems prepared to meet his destiny.” (Viewers who wonder why Lincoln’s hair is parted on different sides in the two portraits should rest assured that the Presidential Lincoln did, on at least one important occasion — the 1864 photographic sitting that produced the $5 bill portrait — part his hair on the side Nance chose for his own portrait of the White House Lincoln.)
Nance was not yet prepared to call his works complete, even after six long months of hands-on labor. Now he cast bronze proofs, photographed them, and sent prints to Lincoln experts throughout the nation, asking for their frank assessments and suggestions. Nance was amused — as well as grateful — when one correspondent pointed out that the suspenders on his lawyer bust showed a type of clasp that hadn’t even been invented in Lincoln’s day.
All in all, Nance found the critiques helpful — and also encouraging. He went back to work. Ultimately, Nance made some radical revisions to the presidential portrait, tearing away at his facial muscles to make him appear thinner and more haggard than in his first draft. “I tried,” he says, “to more accurately depict the ravages of time and office.” Finally, he was ready to design a patina, and months more of sandblasting and experimentation ensued before Nance was satisfied with the deep bronze-like hues his statues now affect along with their occasional touches of color, Viewers will find a bit of red, for instance, in Lincoln’s suspenders — “an artistic statement,” Nance concedes, “designed to reinforce his humanity. The deep color represents the red of blood subdued by the colors of time.”
On Lincoln’s 186th birthday, only two months ago, Nance displayed his riveting dual bronze portraits side by side at the headquarters hotel (for the annual dinner meeting of the Abraham Lincoln Association, where hundreds of the sixteenth president’s most devoted admirers from around the nation met the sculptor and viewed his work first-hand. The display models themselves were quickly purchased at the now-established cost of $8,500 for each set in the limited edition of 35 by Frank J. Williams, who served for nine years as the Association’s president. Williams, who owns the largest private collection of Lincolniana In America, declared the Nance works “deeply moving and beautifully sculpted. I think they are absolutely wonderful, certainly ranking among the best produced this century, and I’m proud and delighted to add them to the Frank and Virginia Williams collection.”
Says James Nance, the first sculptor ever to portray the pre-presidential and presidential Lincoln’s concurrently: “If a portrait is successful, it should offer more than a good likeness; it should represent the summation of the subject’s life as seen through the eyes and sensibilities of the artist. When a viewer appreciates a portrait or any work of art, that viewer is really appreciating the artist’s personal vision and interpretation of the subject. I know that is a high-sounding ideal, but it’s still a goal to which every artist must strive.”
Nance had to fall off a roof before striving toward that ideal in earnest. He had to supplement inspiration with perspiration, myth with research, and his long-held view of Lincoln the man of destiny with one equally strong of Lincoln the man of law. His dual sculptures of two Lincoln’s at two different crossroads of his life make a strong statement on this assassination anniversary that Lincoln continues to exist in vivid terms, but in different ways, in a American memory that still warmly embraces him,
The final Nance bronzes, each a life-size 26-inthes tall by 18 inches wide — and entitled Prairie Lawyer and Immortal Conscience — draw from the landmark works of the past, yet remain firmly rooted in a singular artistic vision of the present. “I hope that these dual portraits will contribute artistically to a more intimate understanding of Mr. Lincoln,” says the artist modestly. Those who have seen the works have already concluded that they do. Nance refers to his long odyssey as my personal search for Lincoln’s spirit.” Many observers feel he has not only found it — but recreated it — and not just once, but twice. Not even Leonard Wells Volk himself could lay such a claim.
Magazine article by Harold Holzer