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Friday, February 12, 2016

Abraham Lincoln Portraits

Abraham Lincoln, 1869, George Peter Alexander Healy,
Official White House portrait now hanging in the State Dining Room.
Abraham Lincoln, 1869,
William Cogswell
Although most younger people today couldn't tell you the date our sixteenth president was born, when it comes to my generation, that number would increase considerably. In the days before Presidents Day we used to get a school holiday, for Abraham Lincoln's birthday and again, a week or so later on February 22nd for the birthday of George Washington. Kids today have it so rough, they only get one day off with the emphasis on honoring all our past Presidents (even some who barely deserve such honor). Lincoln was born on the 12th day of February in 1809 which would make him 217 years old were he still alive. I might also add, that given the number of portraits painted of him after his assassination on April 15th, 1865, maybe he isstill alive. Or, at least artists since then have been doing their best to make it appear so. From all I can gather neither President Lincoln, nor his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, ever posed for a painted portrait while in the White House, though they both sat (or stood) for more than their share of formal photos easily making up the difference. As a result, virtually all paintings of Abraham Lincoln are posthumous and based upon these photos.

Before becoming President, Lincoln posed for the oval, beardless image (top-right) a total of five different times only to have the artist, John Henry Brown, render it mostly from several ambrotypes taken earlier for campaign publicity. It's a miniature painted in watercolor on ivory.
The most well-known portrait of Lincoln now hangs in the White House State Dining Room (top). Painted by the inveterate presidential portrait painter, George Peter Alexander Healy, in 1869. It was one of several entries in a contest sponsored by Congress around 1868. The new President, Ulysses S. Grant was to pick the winner. He chose the standing portrait by William Cogswell (above, left) over that by Healy painting (top). The Healy portrait was purchased from the artist by the Lincoln's son, Robert Todd Lincoln. It remained in the family until his death in 1939 when his widow donated it to the White House. Cogswell's portrait of Lincoln is now somewhere gathering dust in storage.

Lincoln presents the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet,
1864, Francis Bicknell Carpenter.
Two other paintings serve to give us a peak inside the Lincoln White House. The first, by Francis Bicknell Carpenter (above) is titled Lincoln Presents the First Draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet. It dates from 1864, painted before Lincoln was assassinated but nonetheless obviously from photos. A second scene, by the American history painter, Edward Percy Moran (son of the landscape painter, Edward Moran), is titled simply Abe and Mary Todd Lincoln (below). It doesn't seem to be an identifiable room in the White House, nor is it dated, but inasmuch as the artist would have been three years old during even the final years of he Lincoln presidency, stylistically it would appear to date from around 1900.

Abe and Mary Todd Lincoln, Edward Percy Moran.
(One of the few painted images, though not a portrait, of the president's wife.)
Without a doubt, no other painter has ever exalted Abraham Lincoln to such an extent as did Norman Rockwell. This artist/illustrator, an American icon himself, depicted Lincoln (below) from his days as a frontier rail splitter, as a struggling young lawyer, as a candidate for public office, as a president posing for photographer, Matthew Brady, and finally as a godlike legend enthroned by the sculptor Daniel Chester French in his own white marble temple overlooking the Potomac at the foot of the Capitol Mall. Only Hollywood has ever done more to elevate Lincoln to legendary status.

Rockwell presents a multi-dimensional American legend.
But Norman Rockwell was not alone in his near deification of Abraham Lincoln. It's been going on long before Rockwell was born and continues long after his death nearly forty years ago. Some of such efforts would likely make the humble backwoodsman turned politician blush, others make him wince, while still others cause him to smile or, indeed, burst out laughing.

Artists today see to it that the Lincoln legend continues to broaden and diversify.
During the 1920s, the American sculptor (of mostly cemetery works) contributed what is undoubtedly the most recognizable sculpture in this country with possible the exception of New York's Statue of Liberty. His seated Lincoln inspires, awes, and exemplifies the place Lincoln holds in the hearts and minds of Americans of all political denominations. If you've never stood before it, and looked up into the sadly troubled face of our sixteenth president, by all means put doing so near the top of your "bucket list."

The sculptural seated image of Lincoln is instantly recognizable. The standing figure, also by French, is of plaster, intended to be cast in bronze to commemorate Lincoln's Gettysburg address.
In more recent years, depictions of Lincoln have moved from the painted canvas to the silver screen and from Potomac temples to museums. I mentioned earlier the difficulty (or, more accurately, the impossibility) of obtaining even a single painted portrait of First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln. If you come upon one, it's probably a fake, or simply a portrait bearing some resemblance to the sad, mentally unstable widow. She lost a son (Willie, age 12) and a husband while living in the White House. Two other sons also died in childhood, one (Eddie, age 17) before Lincoln became president the other, (Tad) in 1871. He was eighteen. Lincoln had an inordinate love of children, celebrated in numerous etched family groupings and today at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in the family's hometown of Springfield, Illinois (below).
Lincoln Family as encountered in at Springfield's Lincoln Museum.
John Wilkes Booth lingers in the background.

Though there are no painted portraits of Mary Todd Lincoln,
Sally Field and producer Steven Spielberg, in the movie, Lincoln,
paint a vivid cinematic portrait of this tragic First Lady's
days in the White House.


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