By David J. Kent
Friday, July 21, 2023
The Lincoln Group of DC has had some experience with controversial Abraham Lincoln statues, but you may not have heard about one statue that has raised some eyebrows. Located in Vermont, it's called "The Lincoln Trilogy," although it also goes by "The American Spirit."
Not far from Hildene, Robert Lincoln's summer estate, is the small town of Bennington, Vermont. In front of the quaint Bennington Museum stands a Lincoln grouping with three figures. At first glance you can see why the statue is controversial.
Lincoln stands fully clothed, complete with a heavy cape and top hat. Sitting at his feet is a barely covered female figure looking up to him from his waist. He has his hand on her head. His other hand grasps the head of a small boy, unclothed and standing below him. The juxtaposition of the three figures is jarring, at best, even after taking a while to examine it. What could the artist have been thinking?
For one, the artist was not originally thinking the three figures were to be placed together.
The standing figure of the boy is called Fils de France, designed independently in 1918 to reflect a young boy gazing intently into the distance symbolizing rebirth of France following the devastation of World War I. The female figure was also produced in 1918 and in response to the War. Called Nirvana, the statue was originally completely nude, the woman’s attitude of tranquility personified the Buddhist concept of nirvana as a spiritual emancipation from passion, hatred, and delusion. They follow the stylistic tradition of idealized nude figures developed by the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Lincoln statue provides a stark contrast. One of many Lincoln statues created by the artist, Clyde du Vernet Hunt, it reflects a tribute to Lincoln as an actual historical figure. Hunt revered Lincoln as an idealist, humanitarian, and emancipator, which he tried to capture in the powerfully majestic pose of the statue. Each statue was designed to stand on its own merits and meanings.
Clyde du Vernet Hunt maintained a studio in Paris and home in Vermont. He had exhibited the bronze Fils de France (the boy sculpture) and the marble Nirvana (the woman sculpture) at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1918. A decade later, the Societe des Artistes Francais asked him to participate in the exclusive Paris Salon. He created a large plaster group combining the Lincoln statue with the figures of Nirvana and Fils de France. Lincoln and the boy are exact duplicates of the original versions, but Hunt enlarged the female figure of Nirvana and discretely draped the nude female for inclusion in the grouping. Hunt entitled the grouping simply “Lincoln” for the Paris Salon but envisioned it as representing the ideals of Faith (Nirvana), Hope (Fils de France), and Charity (Lincoln, from his “charity for all and malice toward none”). Within this context back in the states, the Fils de France was reinterpreted as “young America.”
The Museum admits that the intellectual concept behind the Lincoln Trilogy was more successful than the visual relationship of the three figures. Even they say the combination of three distinctly individual sculptures of differing scale and spatial orientation is “somewhat awkward.” After returning to the US in 1938, Hunt cast the trilogy in bronze for display at the New York World’s Fair. Hunt’s heirs presented the bronze trilogy to the Bennington Museum in 1949, where the director of the museum appended the title “The American Spirit” to the statues, an interpretation influenced by the nationalism of the 1940s. So, whereas one of the statues depicts a Civil War president, and two of the statues were influenced by World War I, the reinterpretation and retitling came about due to World War II.
Despite the controversy, the statue grouping is worth a visit. The Bennington Museum is a short drive from Hildene, so definitely put it on your agenda if you’re in the area.
[A longer version of this article with additional details was posted here. Photo by David J. Kent]