It was in 1968 that legislation passed by Congress moved the celebration of George Washington’s birthday from the 22nd of February to the third Monday of that month. Abraham Lincoln’s had always been celebrated on the 12th and, officially, it still is. But, it didn’t take long for the average American to consider what is now called Presidents’ Day a combined celebration of both of these revered men.
I’m happy that Honest Abe is given equal billing to the “man who couldn’t tell a lie” even if it isn’t legally accurate. He was just as extraordinary a leader as Washington even though their paths through history were quite different. But, one thing that can be said about both Presidents is that the most compelling lasting images of them are arguably those created by native New Englanders.
To me the most popular image of Washington is his portrait on the one dollar bill. How can it not be? You see his face almost every time you open up your wallet. That image is from a painting by Gilbert Stuart who was born in the village of Saunderstown within the township of North Kingstown, Rhode Island. Stuart also painted perhaps the most famous standing pose of Washington as President.
One may argue that the $5 bill image of Abraham Lincoln is his most recognized. Yet, when his name comes up I always think first of the impressive seated statue of him at the Lincoln Memorial in our Nation’s Capital. Daniel Chester French was the sculptor who designed this as well as other Lincoln statues and he had a significant New England presence. First he was born in Exeter, New Hampshire and then, at the height of his career, he spent most of the six warmest months of the year in a studio that he built in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. I say “most” because he was also known to spend some of his time in the summer months with his Cornish (NH) Colony artist friends.
Fortunately for us the details of how Stuart and French developed their masterpieces can be more thoroughly understood by visiting their respective museums. In Gilbert Stuart’s case that is at his homestead in Saunderstown. For Daniel Chester French you may visit the aforementioned studio which is called Chesterwood and located just a short distance from the more popular Norman Rockwell Museum.
The bad news is that both museums are closed for the winter season. Stuart’s birthplace complete with a working grist mill will open next on May 3rd and French’s summer homestead and studio will reopen on Memorial Day weekend. In the meantime you may visit the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to view the original unfinished portrait of Washington that became so renowned. And, of course, you would need to travel to our Nation’s Capital to see the finished product of the 19-foot high Lincoln statue made from 28 blocks of marble. Last year at this time you could have seen the six-foot high plaster working model at the National Gallery of Art where it was on loan, but, it has since been returned to Chesterwood.
I will have more to report on both of these artists and their respective historic sites when spring arrives.