spacer Abraham Lincoln Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)
Sixteenth President (1861-1865)

Today Abraham Lincoln is universally regarded as one of the greatest Presidents ever. But through much of his administration, he seemed destined for a much less exalted ranking. Entrusted with guiding the nation through civil war, he was beset from the start with criticism from all sides. Some charged him with moral cowardice for initially insisting that an end to slavery was not one of his wartime goals; others accused him of overstepping his constitutional powers; still others blamed him for military reverses in the field. But as Union forces moved toward victory, Lincoln's eloquent articulation of the nation's ideals and his eventual call for an end to slavery gradually invested him with a saintly grandeur. Following his assassination in 1865, that grandeur became virtually unassailable.

The original version of this portrait served as a template for artist George P. A. Healy's large painting, The Peacemakers, depicting Lincoln in consultation with three of his main military advisers at the end of the Civil War. But Healy recognized that the template made for a fine portrait in its own right. Eventually he did three replicas of it, including this one, commissioned by Lincoln's friend Elihu Washburne, and another one, once owned by Lincoln's son Robert, which hangs today in the White House.

George P. A. Healy (1813-1894)
oil on canvas, 1887
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; transfer from the National Gallery of Art
Gift of Andrew W. Mellon

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Abraham Lincoln Abraham Lincoln a month before his second inauguration

Lincoln's faint, tired smile in this likeness makes it one of the most compelling photographic images ever made of him. For many years, it was commonly thought that this photograph dated from early April 1865 and that it was the last one ever made of Lincoln. In fact, it was part of a series of photographs taken at Alexander Gardner's studio two months earlier, on February 5. In shooting the image, Gardner used a large glass negative, which broke before it could be processed. Nevertheless, he managed to make one print. Some have interpreted the crack running through the image as a portent of Lincoln's impending assassination.

Alexander Gardner (1821 - 1882)
Polaroid copy of original albumen silver print, 1865
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

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Abraham Lincoln Casting of a life mask of Abraham Lincoln

During Lincoln's visit to Chicago in the early spring of 1860 to argue a court case, sculptor Leonard Volk asked him to sit for a bust. When Lincoln consented, the artist decided that to keep the sittings to a minimum he would start by doing a life mask. Lincoln found the process of letting wet plaster dry on his face, followed by a skin-stretching removal procedure, "anything but agreeable." But he endured the discomfort with good humor, and when he saw the final bust, he was quite pleased, declaring it "the animal himself." Volk later used the life mask and bust of 1860 as the basis for other renderings, including a full-length statue of Lincoln for the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield.

Leonard Wells Volk (1828 - 1895)
Plaster life mask, 1917 cast after 1860 original
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; transfer from the National Museum of American History

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Abraham Lincoln Life mask of Abraham Lincoln done two months before his death

On February 11, 1865, Abraham Lincoln consented to having another life mask made of him by the sculptor Clark Mills. The process began with an application of oil over Lincoln's face, followed by the application of a thin coat of wet plaster paste that dried quickly. After fifteen minutes, Mills asked Lincoln to twitch his face, and the plaster loosened, falling off in large pieces into a cloth. The pieces were then reassembled to form the finished mask. Comparing this mask with the one done in 1860 by Leonard Volk, it is clear how great a toll the Civil War had taken on Lincoln's health. One friend who saw him a few weeks after the mask was made noted that he "looked badly and felt badly." To another friend Lincoln confided, "I am very unwell."

Clark Mills (1815 - 1883)
Plaster life mask, cast after 1865 original
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; transfer from the National Museum of American History

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Abraham Lincoln Castings of Abraham Lincoln's hands

Sculptor Leonard Volk took the castings of Lincoln's hands at Lincoln's home in Springfield in late May 1860. Lincoln had just won the Republican nomination for President, and Volk was already thinking of using these castings, in combination with his recently completed Lincoln bust, to fashion a full-length statue. Lincoln's right hand grasps a section of broom handle that he himself obligingly fetched from a shed when the artist expressed a desire to have him hold something. When Lincoln began smoothing the raw edges of the sawn piece, Volk told him that it really was unnecessary, to which Lincoln replied, "I thought I would like to have it nice."

Leonard Wells Volk (1828 - 1895)
Plaster life casts, 1917 casts after 1860 originals
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; transfer from the National Museum of American History

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Abraham Lincoln Abraham Lincoln

In the fall of 1858, Lincoln was waging his unsuccessful campaign against Stephen Douglas to win a seat in the United States Senate. On October 11, he arrived in Monmouth, Illinois, where muddy conditions had forced the cancellation of a planned outdoor demonstration on his behalf. The crowds gathered to see him anyway, and he ended up speaking for three hours. The pro-Lincoln Chicago Tribune reported that his "pathos and eloquence" held his audience in "wrapt attention." The pro-Douglas Monmouth Review, however, claimed that his speech was decidedly unworthy "of a would be Senator."

At some time that day, Lincoln stopped at the local photography studio owned by William Thomson to have this likeness taken. The image remained in Thomson's family until the early 1980s, when it came to the National Portrait Gallery.

William Judkins Thomson (active 1850s)
Ambrotype, 1858
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

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