Happy birthday, President Lincoln

February 16, 2012|Washington County Museum of Fine Arts
  • Inside the U.S. Capitol is a monumental bust of Abraham Lincoln. It was sculpted in 1908 from a single block of marble by Gutzon Borglum.
Submitted photo

Located in an honored place in the U.S. Capitol is a monumental bust of Abraham Lincoln. It was sculpted in 1908 from a single block of marble by the artist Gutzon Borglum (1867-1941), best known for his colossal Mount Rushmore sculpture.

The Lincoln bust was donated by Eugene Meyer Jr. The pedestal was specially designed in a funerary style by the sculptor. Later bronze casts of the bust are in the collections of the White House, the Chicago Historical Society, the College of the City of New York, the Tomb of Lincoln in Springfield, Ill., and the University of California, Berkeley, Calif.

But most people do not know that the only half-size marble version of this important work of art is in the collection of the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, Hagerstown.

Given to the museum for its opening, museum founder Anna Brugh Singer arranged with the sculptor to complete the half-size version. She purchased it for the museum in her hometown of Hagerstown.

This sculpture is a important work of art, not just for the region, but for the nation and even the world. Although Washington County's history is rich in the colonial and French and Indian War eras, the Civil War's Battle of Antietam is certainly the most defining event of its history.

With some 23,000 casualties, the Battle of Antietam remains a day of catastrophic loss for America and stimulated a chain of events leading to the Emancipation Proclamation and eventually the Battle of Gettysburg.

The people of Washington County, and the greater region experienced this cataclysm, which overnight brought death, anxiety, destruction, starvation, separation from loved ones, diaspora of the community, and irrevocable change.

Lincoln walked the Antietam Battlefield and met with Gen. George McClelland in October 1862. He urged the general to pursue Gen. Robert E. Lee in order to make short order of the rebellion, restore the Union and save the lives of thousands more who would die in battle. A victory would provide the impetus he needed to keep the Union intact.

Caught in the most tragic battlefield loss of American history on Sept. 17, 1862, hung between the seceding Southern states and the Union, having suffered the death of his son William on Feb. 20, 1862, Abraham Lincoln endured unimaginable personal trauma and shouldered the responsibility of ending a cruel conflict between brothers, neighbors and races. Gutson Borglum's portrayal of Lincoln captures the inner turmoil he suffered, yet reveals his staunch character and enduring concern for others.

Elizabeth Johns, professor emerita of art history at University of Pennsylvania wrote of the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts' sculpture: "Gutzon Borglum's sculpture Head of Lincoln reveals his close study of photographs of the President. The knit brows, hooded eyes, full lower lip, sunken cheeks and even the wart on his cheek place the brooding man before us. Carving the head directly into the stone, Borglum emphasized the right side of Lincoln's face, which he considered the more expressive. The sculpture, created more than 60 years after the end of the Civil War and by an artist who was born after the war, is a testimony to society's enduring preoccupation with Lincoln. Known for his monumental sculpture carved into Mount Rushmore, Borglum considered this portrait as among his finest work."

I invite you to visit the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts this February, and spend time in contemplation of the Head of Lincoln, which is but one of the prized treasures of this community housed at your museum. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, admission is free and the public is welcomed. 

For more information about visitor services, exhibitions and programs, contact the museum at 301-739-5727 or

Rebecca Massie Lane is director of the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts.

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