Let’s be honest: the homeliest president was Abraham Lincoln. That lopsided face. Those ginormous ears. The perpetual bad hair.
And it’s not just me. Men and women who saw Abraham Lincoln in the flesh did not pull their punches about his appearance. Five years into their marriage, Mary Todd Lincoln admitted her husband was “not pretty,” but later tried to soften her original assessment: “Mr. Lincoln may not be as handsome a figure, but the people are perhaps not aware that his heart is as large as his arms are long.”
Author Nathaniel Hawthorne declared that Lincoln was “about the homeliest man I ever saw,” then backtracked a bit, assuring us that the president was “yet by no means repulsive.”
Lincoln was candid about his appearance. Two years before he ran for president he said, “I am the homeliest man in the State of Illinois.”
But there are folks in Chicago today who regard Lincoln as a stud with fitness model potential. None of these good people knew our 16th president, of course; they base their opinion on a fine bronze sculpture, Young Lincoln, that stands in a park near Lake Michigan in the Edgewater neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side.
Back in 1945, sculptor Charles Keck created a striking portrait of Lincoln as a young man. The statue shows Lincoln after a hard day’s work sitting on a tree stump, a law book opened on his right hand, his eyes gazing into the distance. He’s barefoot. His shoulders are broad. His shirt is partially unbuttoned, showing off a slice of chest. And the sleeves are rolled up to reveal his muscular forearms and bulging biceps. Lincoln’s craggy face is smoothed out and handsome. His crazy hair is wavy and styled. His eyes have a dreamy quality. He looks like a newly discovered Hollywood hunk ready for his close-up.
Linze Rice, who writes for the Chicago news site, DNA Info, found that young Mr. Lincoln has gotten a lot of local residents all worked up — in a good way. Edgewater resident Kim Dale said she had only recently noticed Keck’s “strangely racy” sculpture. She and her friends call it “Hot Lincoln.”
“You don’t normally see arms like that on presidential statues or so much bare chest,” Dale said. “His hair is rather like a teen heartthrob, too.”
On Foursquare, the online where to go/what to do/what to see site, one commentator posted, “Young Abe Lincoln = TOTAL FOX.”
Some local high school girls, between giggles, admitted the chiseled guy is “handsome,” and were surprised to learn it was Lincoln — they hadn’t recognized him. Like most Americans, they were used to seeing photos of Lincoln when he was older and showing a lot more mileage.
Aimee Lutkin, writing for Jezebel.com, did her homework and found that in his book, The Civil War in Art and Memory, author Kirk Savage says the Keck sculpture is supposed to give you “the feeling that Lincoln has just finished work, found a comfortable tree stump to sit on, grabbed his book, and is lost in his law studies.”
Lutkin takes issue with Savage interpretation. “Sorry,” she writes, “that statue is not thinking about the law. He’s thinking about me!!!”
As for Rice, she’s taken to calling the statue “Babe-raham Lincoln.”
There are five other statues of Lincoln in Chicago, the most famous being Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Standing Lincoln, an exceptional work of art erected in Lincoln Park in 1886, twenty-one years after the president’s death. It is a portrait of Lincoln during the years he was president. Robert Todd Lincoln said it was the best likeness of his father he’d ever seen. Robert Lincoln was long gone by the time Keck’s sculpture was unveiled, so we’ll never know what he would have thought of this younger, buffer portrait of his Dad.
Keck’s statue of young Lincoln may be raising heart rates in Chicago, but a statue of young Lincoln in Los Angeles raises eyebrows. In the Los Angeles Federal Courthouse, you’ll find a sculpture of young Lincoln that was carved by James Hansen in 1939. Hansen’s Lincoln holds a book — it’s closed. He’s ripped — and you can tell because he’s not wearing a shirt. And the thumb of his right hand is on his waistband — which he is pulling down.
Since we’re re-naming sculptures, let’s call the Hansen statue the “See Something You Like?” Lincoln.
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of Stealing Lincoln’s Body.