Art Works Blog

Photography and Mr. Lincoln

By 1860, photography had officially begun to make its mark on the American landscape. For the first time in history, ordinary Americans could have their likeness snapped, printed, and distributed to family and friends—a far cry from the expensive, oil-painted portraits of aristocrats past. But while photography ushered in a new era of democratization, Abraham Lincoln saw a different set of possibilities within cheap reproduction and dissemination of photographs. “We tend to forget that he was a political genius who really had a sense of American culture,” said David Ward, senior historian at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. “He figured out right away that photography could be used politically.”

Lincoln’s presidential campaign pins were some of the first to feature a candidate’s photo, and his portraits were widely disseminated, allowing the public to put a face to this relative unknown from Illinois. One photograph in particular is thought to have helped him win White House. The portrait was taken by Matthew Brady on February 27, 1860—the same day Lincoln delivered his famous Cooper Union Address, which laid out his stance on slavery and helped launch him onto the national stage.

“[Lincoln] goes to New York and gets a new suit, and then he has his picture taken by Matthew Brady on Madison Avenue,” said Ward, who curated the Portrait Gallery’s 2008 exhibit One Life: The Mask of Lincoln. “It's a very dignified picture of Lincoln standing next to a desk with his hand on law books. It does exactly what you want a campaign image to do: It makes him look sober and reflective and responsible and ready to govern.” Lincoln himself is reported to have said, “Brady and the Cooper Institute made me president.”

Lincoln continued to exploit the power of photography throughout his presidency, and had his portrait taken regularly by photographers such as Brady and Alexander Gardner. Ward believes this was part of Lincoln’s strategy to maintain visibility during the Civil War, and to reassure the country that he remained engaged and in touch. “He would be sitting around the White House with his secretaries and say, ‘Let’s go down to Mr. Brady’s or Mr. Gardner’s and get my picture taken,’” said Ward. “I think he was signposting to the nation that he was on the job, that he was present. He wasn't hidden away at the White House.”

Because Lincoln had so many portraits taken—many of which now live at the National Portrait Gallery—it’s possible to track changes in his appearance through the years, and how these coincided with national events. For instance, the beard. When Lincoln was elected to his first presidential term in November 1860, he was entirely smooth-cheeked. By the time he took office in March however, he was sporting the bushy beard for which he is so well-known. The famous anecdote is that Lincoln grew his facial fuzz in response to a little girl named Grace Bedell, who wrote him a letter suggesting he would look “a great deal better” were he to let his whiskers grow. (Already a savvy political strategist, she went on to write, “All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President.”) 


Abraham Lincoln

Ward however has his own pet theory about what may have sparked the follicular change. “He knew we were probably going to war, and he was toughening up,” he said. “It was almost like this putting aside of childish things. He's no longer the fresh-faced boy from Illinois. He's grizzling himself.”

Although the beard represented a dramatic change in appearance, photographs also reveal a more gradual shift in Lincoln’s visage. As the Civil War progressed, the strain showed in his sunken eyes, hollow cheeks, and deeply seamed brow. “As the war goes on, it seems like every casualty is imprinted on his skin,” said Ward. On top of that, “He gets very tired, he's subject to these depressive moods, his son [Willie] dies while he's in office, his wife has trouble coping with the grief as you'd expect. Lincoln feels the nation's pain, and it seems imprinted on his face.”

Of course, the photography of the era wasn’t limited to portraiture. As technology advanced, cameras began to move beyond the studio, and the Civil War was one of the first conflicts to be documented through photographs. Both Brady and Gardner cemented their legacies on the battleground, where their stark imagery of the dead shocked a country accustomed to idealized paintings of war scenes. “[The battlefield photographs] have this tremendous effect on the public because the war cannot be seen as a kind of romantic, intellectual exercise,” said Ward. “You're looking at dead bodies, you're looking at the landscape, you're looking at the trees and buildings that have been blasted up by artillery. The reality of modern life and modern warfare is driven home to people, and there's this kind of shock.”

The effects of these photographs were no doubt less jolting for Lincoln, who saw the depicted battlefields and hospitals first-hand. Regardless, the way in which photography now permanently preserved the fallen offered an inescapable reminder of the war’s toll. “I think [photography] reinforced his tendency toward realism,” he said. “Lincoln was never self-deceptive; Lincoln never fooled himself about what was going on. When there was a defeat, he didn't sugarcoat anything. And I think photography for him reinforced the sense that this was a tough world, it was a very difficult war. It was his evidence.”

This evidence miraculously survives today, and taken with the remarkable number of surviving Lincoln portraits, we’re left with a sweeping visual record of a president and his times. “If you think about Lincoln's career, he comes from nowhere, the broken home, one-term [Congressman], unsuccessful at a lot of things,” said Ward. “It's an amazing story, and photography documents it. It's sort of astonishing.” 

Learn more about the National Portrait Gallery's Lincoln holdings, or see what the museum has in store for Presidents' Day.

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