J. Seward Johnson, Jr., Sculptor
Lincoln Sculpture Dedication Speech
I undertook this sculpture of Abraham Lincoln with great enthusiasm, with great respect, and with great humility. I began with the help of Dr. Boritt of the Civil War Institute developing a clear and intense view of this President who kept the Union together against tremendous political odds. The battlefields here bear silent witness to the high price we paid for this unified country.
In Lincoln’s day, Presidential addresses were rare. But Lincoln was determined to speak here – 128 years ago this day – to dedicate Cemetery Hill as a national cemetery. He wrote the first draft of the Gettysburg Address in 8 sentences on a piece of White House stationary, and completed it upstairs, in the room above us. Lincoln led the procession to the cemetery that day where Edward Everett delivered a grand two-hour oration to a crowd which stood long and restlessly. Then, Lincoln rose. The words “Four score and seven years ago”; were heard by the hushed crowd of fifteen thousand people, and the words have continued to echo through Gettysburg, through the nation, and throughout the world. It is considered the most elegantly concise and powerful speech in history and it was given right here over at the cemetery.
He spoke of a “proposition” dedicated to the future of human equality and liberty . . . of dignity for all people. He did not speak of the victors and the vanquished in this terrible battle. He did not justify the loss. Because, his understanding of the need to preserve the Union was balanced by his human need to lament this great loss. With humble dignity Lincoln instead spoke, that day, of “a new birth of freedom,” and gave tacit recognition to the humanity we all share that was called upon in that effort. My sculpture, “Return Visit” celebrates Lincoln’s own humanity. It places him with his fellow Americans on the street, not separated by a pedestal, not separated by aesthetics . . . he is bronze but stands here in colors that he would have been in, in 1863. He’s life size. All six foot four inches. And his humanity is shown in 20th century terms relating to another man, on of our own times. My sculpture, in general, celebrates the details of humanity in ordinary people. A working man on his lunch-break, two women in conversation, a child eating an ice cream cone, a couple of house-painters sharing a joke. These are the small moments in everyday life that weave the common cloth of our humanity.
Lincoln’s greatness is noted by historians, and celebrated by many. But he was also a human scale presence. I strive to emphasize this in the small, very human gestures of this man who has a larger-than-life historic image. Lincoln’s human qualities are often lost in the reverence that surrounds his memory. As a figure recedes in history, he can become less real. I wanted to bring this man’s basic humanity back to us to remind us that this greatness sprang from one like us.
I don’t put any of my sculptures on pedestals. They are not particularly well suited to the confines of city museums. They don’t frame themselves as an aesthetic. They don’t proclaim themselves art. They are bronze impersonations . . . but they are there for a purpose. I want them to surprise people, to touch people with a subtle message and to be touched by people. They are meant to become part of the landscape and to blend with people who populate this setting. I try to stress the individuality and the commonality of our daily existence. The expressions of spirit in all of us that Lincoln recognized as the underlying principles of equality.
As a sculptor, I have a unique perspective on my subject. It is an intimate relationship that develops between artist and subject. The process is lengthy and each tactile detail is a visceral discovery. I was particularly moved when I worked on Lincoln’s hands, the hands that wrote the address given here. No typewriter, no word-processor, and no secretary came between Lincoln’s thoughts and the written word he crafted with these hands. I worked on the details of his gestures, his gazing thoughtfully between the copy of his address in his 20th Century partner’s hand and the man’s face. His touching the other man’s elbow in contact but in a dignified, guiding contact. With the help of Dr. Boritt, I grew to feel Lincoln, the man, the individual – a person who made a difference. A person of great dignity and vision. A person who had great impact on his world – our world. I wanted him here on the sidewalk within our reach. He stands here with a modern figure . . . a contemporary man who can act as our mirror, our conduit to bring Lincoln’s ideas into present day thought.
That’s why I have done my best to bring Lincoln to the likeness of life . . . to live amongst us and among the coming generations of Americans. We welcome him back here today, to breathe new life into his message of equality and dignity for us all.
Thank you for being here to join this celebration.
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