On Lincoln in Lincoln (Nebraska)

Lincoln Daniel Chester French NebraskaWashington was chosen as the site for the Capital of the United States because of its proximity to the geographical center of the country. Of course if that decision were being made today, a city named after another oft-admired president would fit the bill.

Lincoln, Nebraska was named in 1867 after the recently assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. I had heard once that the naming decision was made in part based on an effort to relocate the U.S. capital to the geographic center following the Civil War, but I can’t find confirmation of that now.

In any case the 16th President looms large over the town of Lincoln, capital of Nebraska. It’s also one of a few cities named after presidents. Lincoln himself never set foot in Nebraska, but his namesake city may be one of the best places to find his likeness, and lingering presence.

Lincoln Marsden HartleyBest known for his seated sculpture of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, Daniel Chester French is also the sculptor of a standing Lincoln in front of the Nebraska State Capitol. The sculpture was made more than 50 years after the naming of the town and unveiled in 1912. The present capitol building was constructed later.

The smaller version of French’s Standing Lincoln housed in the nearby Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery is not different than those in many other American museums, but the objects it is displayed with give it additional meaning.

Lincoln Sheldon Michelle O Mickalene ThomasVisible from the centrally placed sculpture is Young Worshipper of the Truth by Marsden Hartley. The work was most likely inspired by a portrait of Lincoln Hartley owned. A later work by the artist featured the president in front of the U.S. Capital and is titled Weary of the Truth.

Just more than three percent of the population of Lincoln is African-American, but the presence of this historical figure so important to the community undoubtedly influences the work chosen for the galleries here. Surrounding the Standing Lincoln are images of Frederick Douglas, Michelle Obama and others.

It likely also has some impact on local collectors. Michelle O by Mickalene Thomas is a promised gift to the museum. From the image it appears Thomas in some ways continues the pop-art tradition of Andy Warhol. Thomas creates screenprints of African-American celebrities and political figures.

In some ways Lincoln is an odd place to find so much dedicated to the namesake president. Nebraska only became a state after he died. In some ways Lincoln is an odd place to find so much dedicated to African-American art: the population here is small. But America is here. And the artistic contributions of African Americans extend from Harlem into the heartland, and vice-versa.

Aaron Douglas, Window Cleaning, Sheldon Lincoln NebraskaBorn in Kansas, painter and a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance, Aaron Douglas was the first African American to earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts at the University of Nebraska. The museum actively collects his work as part of its African-American Masters collection.

In Lincoln one is noticeably removed from Harlem, Washington and the still lingering connotations of “North” and “South.”  Yet Harlem, Washington and Gettysburg are strung together here by Lincoln and his legacy. In the end, it’s the American part that matters most, and here as much as anywhere, is America.

It was Emerson who said “Europe extends to the Alleghenies; America lies beyond.”

The fact that French’s statue of the great leader stands near the geographic center of the country, may be an anchor of sorts around which we move.

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