AUGUSTA — Franklin Simmons’ final meeting with President Abraham Lincoln was to schedule an appointment for the Maine artist to do the president’s portrait.
The next day, Lincoln was dead, assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.
“In the case of Lincoln, (Simmons) actually had a chance to meet and talk briefly with Lincoln on at least a couple of occasions,” said Maine State Historian Earle Shettleworth. “He actually met with Lincoln the day before Lincoln was killed. He had an appointment to do his portrait the following week.”
Simmons, who is the focus of next week’s installment of the “Maine Voices from the Civil War” lecture series at the Maine State Museum, completed a bust and a profile of the dead president from memory. Lincoln is one of several key political and military figures Simmons monumentalized during the Civil War.
“He’s one of the major artists that Maine contributed to American art,” Shettleworth said.
Simmons was born in Webster (now Sabattus) in 1839 and already had started his sculpting career in the 1850s.
“Essentially, he was active as a sculptor here in Maine from the mid-1850s, which would be in his teens, until he went to Washington, D.C., in late fall of 1864,” Shettleworth said. “The fact he went to Washington and was there through at least half of 1865 was really a turning point in his career as an American sculptor.”
Simmons, who worked with bronze, plaster and marble, went to the U.S. Capitol after meeting Rhode Island artist William Miller, who ran a highly sophisticated bronze foundry, Shettleworth said.
“It was in connection with Miller that (Simmons) went to Washington to have these leaders sit for him,” Shettleworth said. “Out of those visits with famous political and military leaders came a whole series of bronze profiles cast by Miller.”
Though just 25 years old, Simmons was able to secure appointments with not only Lincoln, but many other key historical figures, including Union leader and future president Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Navy Adm. David Farragut and Secretary of State William Seward.
Reliefs created during the commercial endeavor, known as the National Portrait Gallery, are now rare. One of the two largest collections is at the Portland Museum of Art, Shettleworth said.
Simmons completed a small-scale, full-length statue of Lincoln that he brought to Maine in 1865. Simmons left the statuette here after meeting with Gov. Samuel Cony, with whom Simmons discussed creating a statue of a standing soldier as a memorial to the Maine men who participated in the Civil War. Cony proposed that the Legislature set aside $30,000 for the project.
“This is never carried out, but the statuette of Lincoln remained in the State House,” Shettleworth said. “We still have it to this day.”
The statuette, along with a bronze cast of Seward, will be on display at the Maine State Museum, along with a number of other Civil War period items, beginning June 29.
Simmons, encouraged by the interest generated from his war leaders’ portraits, left for Rome in 1866, a year after the war ended, and lived there the rest of his life.
“He did come back to Maine frequently for various commissions, including some very important Civil War-related work,” Shettleworth said.
Shettleworth said Simmons, like many other American sculptors, worked in Rome because Italians had a centuries-old tradition of marble carving. Americans would create the profiles or busts in plaster and give them to an Italian artist to carve in marble or cast in bronze.
“This was something that was really widespread,” Shettleworth said. “Many of the top American sculptors of the 19th century spent much of their lives in Rome.”
Simmons died in Rome in 1913 and is buried in the Protestant cemetery there beside his two wives, both of whom died before he did. His grave is marked by the statue of an angel that Simmons did in bronze when his second wife died.
“According to individuals I’ve talked to who are familiar with the Protestant cemetery in Rome, that’s one of the most popularly visited statues,” Shettleworth said.
Simmons work continues to be displayed at major museums and historic places, including the U.S. Capitol, two outdoor Civil War-related monuments on the Capitol grounds and Logan Square in Washington D.C., the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the de Young Museum in San Francisco.
“We’re very fortunate,” Shettleworth said. “We have some of the best examples right here in Maine.”
Shettleworth’s free lecture on Simmons is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Maine State Museum, in the State House complex off State Street.
Craig Crosby — 621-5642