The statue, “Young Lincoln,” has been flirting with federal courthouse visitors in Los Angeles for nearly 80 years.
James Lee Hansen was a local art student barely out of his teens in 1939, when a friend encouraged him to enter a contest for public art to decorate the federal building, according to a Los Angeles Times story published two years later. He was unsure if he should enter, given that he had only made one other statue in his life. Still, he submitted a small plaster model just before the contest deadline.
Amazingly, he won, earning a commission of $7,200 (about $130,000 in today’s dollars). He spent the next year carving the eight-foot statue out of limestone, using his own body as a model.
There may have been a small delay in the completion of the statue, however. According to a 1940 LIFE Magazine story, Hansen used his prize money to buy a car, crashed it and “spent 18 days in jail.”
It’s unclear what happened to Hansen after his early success. (There is another sculptor named James Lee Hansen, who is in his nineties and lives in the Pacific Northwest, but he is not the creator of the swole president.)
As for Lincoln’s semi-nudity, Hansen had this to say when the statue was unveiled in 1941: “Well, from a sculpturing standpoint, it’s better to show the body without any clothes. That’s why I left ’em off.”
Indeed, Hansen wasn’t the first to depict a president as a shirtless beefcake.
Hansen also wasn’t the first to depict the gangly, sharp-faced Lincoln in a more, er, flattering manner. Upon seeing a portrait of himself in 1860, Lincoln told the artist Thomas Hicks, “I think the picture has a somewhat pleasanter expression than I usually have, but that, perhaps, is not an objection.”