Editor’s note: as promised, we have more about the bust of Lincoln and its missing ear.
–by Don Kennon
“Not often in the story of mankind does a man arrive on earth who is both steel and velvet, who is as hard as rock and soft as drifting fog, who holds in his heart and mind the paradox of terrible storm and peace unspeakable and perfect.” Carl Sandburg, Speech to a Joint Session of Congress on the Sesquicentennial of the Birth of Abraham Lincoln in 1959
Perhaps the one work of Lincoln art in the United States Capitol that best captures the steel and velvet duality expressed in prose by Sandburg is the massive marble head of Lincoln by Gutzon Borglum. Borglum was born in Idaho two years after Lincoln’s death and educated in sculpture in San Francisco and Paris. In 1901 he established a studio in New York where he turned out portrait busts of patriots from American history. Perhaps as a result of his marriage to a scholar of Middle Eastern culture, he developed what his wife referred to as “the emotional value of volume.” Borglum began to plan massive monumental sculptures carved from natural rock formations on a scale like those of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, which led to his projects at Stone Mountain and Mount Rushmore. His head of Lincoln now in the Capitol crypt was a study for such a project. Carved from a single six-ton block of marble, the head is four times life-size. It was purchased by Eugene Meyer, donated to the Capitol in 1908, and originally placed in the rotunda.
Borglum had long been a student of Lincoln’s features when he came to sculpt the Capitol bust. He believed that the dualities of Lincoln’s personality (hard as rock, soft as velvet) were reflected in the opposite sides of his face—the right strong and masculine, the left soft and feminine. Borglum said of Lincoln’s face: “You see half-smile, half-sadness; half anger, half-forgiveness; half-determination, half-pause; a mixture of expression that drew accurately the middle course he would follow.” If you look at the left side, you don’t see an ear. Borglum explained in a letter to the congressional committee that he purposely omitted the ear because he wished attention to be drawn to the stronger right side of the face.
Borglum is also represented in the Capitol by three statues in the Statuary Hall collection: John Campbell Greenway of Arizona, Alexander Stephens of Georgia, and Zebulon Baird Vance of North Carolina. The Borglum head of Lincoln was moved from the rotunda to the Crypt in 1979.