‘Hot Lincoln’ Stands in Long Line of Attractive Presidential SculpturesHistorians in the News
tags: Abraham Lincoln, statues, monuments
It’s a generally accepted fact that Abraham Lincoln, top-hat-wearing unifier, wasn’t a dream boat. Our tallest president to this day—he towered at 6 feet 4 inches—was gangly, with a craggy face and, in the words of Walt Whitman, a “doughnut complexion.” One journalist described him both as “the homeliest man I ever saw” and “a huge skeleton in clothes.” But did we get it wrong? Was the 16th president, actually, Hollywood-star hot? That’s the version of Lincoln peddled in a 1941 statue at a federal courthouse in Los Angeles. The 8-foot-tall statue recently went viral, and it’s quite… something. The limestone Lincoln appears shirtless and shredded, tugging at the waistband of his zipper-less trousers like a presidential Calvin Klein ad.
“Hot Lincoln” (née The Young Lincoln) was the product of a 1939 public art contest won by James Lee Hansen, an art student in his twenties who hailed from Fresno, California. When asked at the sculpture’s reveal party about the historically anachronistic choice to make the president a shirtless hunk, Hansen replied, “From a sculpturing standpoint, it’s better to show the body without any clothes. That’s why I left ’em off.”
Whether Hansen realized it or not, his Young Lincoln statue stands on a muscular tradition of amping up the sex appeal of leaders that goes back at least to the Greeks, who used buff bodies to communicate their subjects’ physical and moral fortitude. The concept was grounded in the scientifically debunked concept of physiognomy. Mount Holyoke professor Christopher Rivers explains in his book Face Value that physiognomy, which was espoused by ancient Mesopotamians and then more formally set out by the Greeks, is the idea that someone’s outward appearance reflects that person’s inner characteristics. The complementary Greek concept of kalokagathia, which conflated athletic beauty with an equally appealing soul, also supported this concept.
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