Lincoln the Rail-splitter

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Lincoln the Rail-splitter
Temporary version exhibited in 1909, cast in bronze in 1911
Charles J. Mulligan
Garfield Park
Bronze figure on granite base
14 x 4 x 4 ft. 
Chicago Park District

How can you tell Lincoln has been at work? Rail-splitting means using a large maul (mallet) and wedges to split logs into thinner pieces. It was hard work done by people living on the prairie mostly to make fences to mark property. When Lincoln ran for President, his campaign emphasized that he had done this kind of work so common people could relate to him. A temporary version of this sculpture called Lincoln the Rail-splitter was first displayed at an outdoor art exhibit in Garfield Park in 1909. Do you think visitors to the sculpture exhibit were surprised by this representation of the beloved sixteenth president of the United States? During this period, monuments to important historical figures were often depicted wearing fancy clothes and standing on enormous settings such as Abraham Lincoln: The Man. The artist of this sculpture, Charles Mulligan had completed a more traditional heroic monument entitled Lincoln the Orator in 1903. (There is a reproduction of that statue at Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago). A few years later, when he began making a sculpture for the Garfield Park outdoor exhibit, Mulligan wanted to focus on Lincoln’s humble beginnings as a young man who did manual labor at various jobs, including rail-splitting. The plaster version of the sculpture was so well liked that two years later a permanent bronze version was cast and installed in Garfield Park, where it remains today.

1. This sculpture is much smaller than the three other Lincoln monuments in Chicago’s parks. Do you think this humble approach is fitting or do you think the larger and more monumental Lincolns are more appropriate? Why? 

2. How does this sculpture compare to the painting The Railsplitter?

Further reading:
Bach, Ira and Mary Lackritz Gray, A Guide to Chicago’s Public Sculpture (University of Chicago Press, 1983).

“Public Art in Chicago” (blog) Accessed July 25, 2011.

“Web-based Guide to the Chicago Park District’s Fountains, Monuments, and Sculptures,” 2010.

Chicago Park District