Metropolitan Museum of Art Official Discusses Lincoln Iconography
The Nathan I. Huggins Lecture Series concluded yesterday with a talk by Harold Holzer, the senior vice president for external affairs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on the iconography of Abraham Lincoln after the Emancipation Proclamation.
According to Holzer, there has been an evolution in artistic representations of the Emancipation Proclamation since 1863, when the Proclamation was issued. Holzer noted, for example, that in early representations, calligraphers would darken certain words of the Proclamation to make an image of Lincoln out of the text,
Holzer suggested that this early emphasis on printing the text of the Proclamation stemmed from the difficulty of dealing with emancipation during the Civil War.
“Representations of the Emancipation Proclamation started with words because it invited artists to suppress imagination and focus on the literal,” Holzer said.
Just as there were positive portrayals of Lincoln following the Emancipation Proclamation, there were also caricatures deriding him for the decision.
The New York World, a publication that catered to Confederate sensibilities, portrayed Lincoln as an African king on the front cover, and ran a feature on “Abraham Africanus I—His Secret Life”.
The most famous portrayal of Lincoln is arguably the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Holzer commented on the segregated crowd at the memorial’s dedication in 1922, describing the way in which the memorial has since served as a backdrop for diverse events ranging from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech to Glenn Beck’s recent “Restoring Honor” rally.
Holzer also discussed the 2003 dedication of a statue commemorating Lincoln’s visit to Richmond, Virginia, on April 4, 1865.
“What is remarkable is how benign a statue this is—it shows Lincoln sitting with his son Tad on a bench—and how much controversy the statue elicited,” Holzer said. “There were rebel yells and anti-Lincoln banters, and all this in front of the historic Tredegar Iron Works, now a Civil War museum, where munitions were manufactured for the South with slave labor.”
Holzer said that he thinks the statue is inappropriate since it does not portray the recently emancipated African Americans who saw Lincoln that day.
But it is often most important for modern public sculptures to provide a good photo opportunity, according to Holzer.
Audience members included Professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr, who chairs of the Du Bois Institute—the organization sponsoring the Nathan I. Huggins Lecture Series.
“This is the most prestigious lecture series on African American studies in the country, and Holzer is the leading commentator on Abraham Lincoln,” Gates said. “This series is particularly relevant because changing representations of Lincoln are a way of indicating how Americans feel about race relations.”