This article originally appeared in the pages of the Gettysburg Times, January of 2019. It is one of a recurring series penned by members of the Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania, in the hopes of sharing the work the Fellowship does. We are delighted to re-share this as the first entry in our new Fellowship blog!
I am the Vice President of the Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania, but during the day, I am an artist who specializes in painting Abraham Lincoln. My studio and gallery are here in Gettysburg. There isn’t a day that passes that I don’t contemplate what it would be like if President Abraham Lincoln could return to Gettysburg to witness the profound impact his Gettysburg Address has made, not only on our thriving community but also the world.
If you visit Gettysburg’s town square, you will notice a statue in front of the David Wills House that captures what it might look like if the sixteenth president visited today. John Seward Johnson II (born 16 April 1930) is the American artist who created this iconic sculpture, titled, “Return Visit.”
“Return Visit” was commissioned by the Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania and dedicated in 1991. The statue represents a “common man” (a present-day tourist) with Abraham Lincoln. While gazing at the Wills House, the tourist holds a copy of the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln stares down at his Address, and with his hat outstretched in his left hand, he seems to be inviting the “tourist” to notice the Wills House—to show him where he made finishing touches to his “few appropriate remarks.”
This amazing sculpture should make residents of Gettysburg very proud. Seward Johnson is a profound and renowned American artist. Heir to the Johnson and Johnson empire, he began his artistic career as a painter. In 1968, he began sculpting, choosing bronze as his new medium. He remarked that he liked to work in bronze because "it is strong and endures nature's harshness over long periods of time.”
Each bronze sculpture takes two years to complete. Johnson says he first observes his subjects by "walking through life, retaining the way people relate to each other, gestures they make, telltale habits, expressions." He has created more than 450 life-sized sculptures. They are in museums in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Asia. Many appear in busy public venues such Times Square and Rockefeller Center in New York City, Pacific Place of Hong Kong, Les Halles in Paris, and Via Condotti in Rome. One of his most famous works is his twenty-six foot tall “Forever Marilyn.” This sculpture debuted in 2011 along Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. His most renowned sculpture, “Embracing Peace,” depicts the moment in Times Square when the sailor and nurse spontaneously rejoiced in celebration on V-E Day at the conclusion of World War ll in Europe.
The Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania is honored to maintain the “Return Visit.” The bronze Lincoln statue weighs 700 pounds and stands 6’ 4” inches tall (Lincoln’s actual height). The bronze “tourist” statue weighs 400 pounds. Most of the time, the statue only requires on-site cleanings and modest repairs. But in 2011, the Fellowship sent the statue to the sculptor’s studio for a major, meticulous four-month restoration.
There are approximately 1,300 monuments, markers, and memorials in and around the Gettysburg area. I would bet that the “Return Visit” statue in downtown Gettysburg is the most touched, hugged, and, certainly, the most photographed of all.
- Wendy Allen