The National Mall in Washington, D.C., is a wonderful place, with its museums and monuments, walking paths and reflecting pool. My favorite spot on the Mall is the Lincoln Memorial. It is, quite simply, a majestic place — a kind of temple to democracy and an aspirational symbol of what the United States can and should aspire to be.
The most awesome part of the Lincoln Memorial experience is entering the interior and seeing the colossal statute of Lincoln created by sculptor Daniel Chester French. Towering nineteen feet tall, showing Lincoln seated on an enormous chair, the statute is the embodiment of our ideal of presidential character. When many of us — at least, those who have visited the Memorial –visualize Lincoln, French’s depiction is what comes to mind: deeply thoughtful, somber, placid, resolute, and reassuring. The dark shadows that sharply etch the 16th President’s craggy face play a significant role in creating that sense of calmness and historical enormity.
Interestingly, it wasn’t always that way. When the Lincoln Memorial was first dedicated in 1922, French was horrified by the lighting of the statute. French specifically created the sculpture so that shadows would define Lincoln’s face, but the skylights in the building didn’t produce sufficient overhead lighting to provide the shadows — leaving Lincoln to sit with a kind of blank, zombie-like stare, rather than projecting the sense of unwavering purpose that French had intended. It wasn’t until 1926, after large floodlights were installed into the ceiling to cast the overhead light in the right way, that French was satisfied. The photograph below of the worker installing the statue prior to the dedication gives a sense of how different Lincoln looked under the original lighting conditions.
French was right, of course — the shadows are a crucial part of what makes the Lincoln Memorial statue so memorable. It’s amazing what some light shining from the right direction can accomplish.