Editor's note: The following article is printed with permission of the Kentucky Historical Society. The article was included in Vol. 30, July 1932 issue of The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, pp 211-220.. If you have questions or comments regarding the article, or if you have interest in purchasing copies, please contact the Kentucky Historical Society directly through either this phone number or web address:


The Early Portraits of Lincoln

by Louis A. Warren [*]


(Read on the occasion of the unveiling of the Lincoln portrait by Charles Sneed Williams, at the Boone Day meeting of the Kentucky State Historical Society, June 7, 1932)


The day after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Rutherford B. Hayes, in commenting on the tragedy said, "Lincoln's fame is safe. He is the darling of history forevermore."He might have said as truly, "He is the darling of art forevermore."

No historical figure, with the exception of Biblical characters, has stirred within the souls of the apostles of beauty such an urge to create masterpieces as this humble, homely Kentuckian.

Or was he homely, in the common usage of that word? This question will continually confront us as we study the early portraits of Abraham Lincoln.

It might be said at the very outset that our reaction towards the appearance of Abraham Lincoln might serve as an indication of our appraisal of Kentucky men in general. There is the Northern Yankee type, the Southern Colonel type, the Easterner and the Westerner, but no state in the union except Kentucky has so definitely moulded her men -- and women too for that matter -- that they can be set apart as products of a certain commonwealth.

This fact makes the dedication of a Lincoln portrait in Kentucky more significant than a similar event could be in any other state in the Union; and the fact that a Kentuckian is the creator of this work of art makes it doubly important.

Among all the many original photographs of Lincoln which might have been selected jointly by the portrait committee and the artist as a model for this effort, the one chosen more clearly visualizes the characteristics which we look for in a Kentuckian, than any other single view of the president.

In the group of characters which have come to represent the various nations we observe that Uncle Sam is usually portrayed as being head and shoulder above his associates. A study of the evolution of this national character will reveal that it was during the administration of Abraham Lincoln that the figure of our early Jonathan emerged into our long and lank personage with swallowtail coat and striped pants. We might conclude that Lincoln, the representative Kentuckian, has contributed most to the national figure which stands for the United States.

Woodrow Wilson sensed the place Lincoln occupies in our national life when he said, "In Henry Clay East and West were mixed without being fused or harmonized. . . . In Jackson there was not even a mixture; he was all of a piece and altogether unacceptable to some parts of the country, a.frontier statesman. But, in Lincoln the elements were combined and harmonized.[1] It is the conclusion of all observing students of history that Lincoln was literally 'The First American.' "

It is the purpose of this paper to try and create a deeper sense of appreciation for this work of art, which is to occupy a place in Kentucky's Hall of Fame, by presenting the reactions of some of those early artists who had the privilege of doing Abraham Lincoln from life.

Inasmuch as this new portrait we are dedicating to-day presents Lincoln without a beard, it seems wise to place special emphasis on those studies made of him previous to the time he started to grow a beard, shortly after his election to the presidency. While this will necessarily eliminate some of the most famous Lincoln paintings it will allow us to confine ourselves to a specific type of portrait.


Leonard Volk

No one who anticipates even a short monogram on the artist's conception of Lincoln, whether it be photographic, in oil, on stone or on metal, can pass over the most outstanding contribution to a correct reproduction of Lincoln's features, the life mask, made by Leonard W. Volk.

Mr. Volk first met Abraham Lincoln at Lincoln, Illinois, in 1858 and told him that he would like very much to make a bust of him. Mr. Lincoln promised that when the opportunity offered itself he would grant him that privilege.

It was nearly two years before Volk met Lincoln again. Volk had just returned from Washington to Chicago in the spring of 1860 when he read in the paper that Lincoln was in the city. He remembered the promise Lincoln had made to give him some sittings and he immediately approached the president on the subject.

Appointments were made for his visits to the Volk studio in the Portland Block, .just after breakfast. Mr. Volk said that Lincoln was there promptly each morning and never failed to be on time.

Upon the occasion of his first visit Lincoln said: "Mr. Volk, I have never sat before to sculptor or painter -- only for daguerreotypes and photographs. What shall I do?" Mr. Volk advised that he would only take the measurements of his head and shoulders then and the next morning, Saturday, he would make a cast of his face.

Mr. Volk describes Lincoln's reaction to the making of the mask as follows: "He sat naturally in the chair when I made the cast and saw every move I made in a mirror opposite, as I put the plaster on without interference with his eyesight or his free breathing through his nostrils. It was about an hour before the mold was ready to be removed, and being all in one piece, with both ears perfectly taken, it clung pretty hard, as the cheek-bones were higher than the jaws at the lobe of the ear. He bent his head low and took hold of the mold and gradually worked it off without breaking or injury."[2]

Truman H. Bartlett in his "Physiognomy of Lincoln" published in McClure's Magazine in 1907 gives an interesting account of his experience, in Europe, upon having a bronze reproduction made of one of the plaster casts of the Volk Life Mask. He says:

"When I took a plaster copy, in 1877, to the oldest Paris bronze-founder to get it cast in bronze, I put it down on a table side by side with a mask of the Abbe Lamenais. The first words of the founder were: --'What a beautiful face! Why, it's more beautiful and has more character than the Abbe's, and we think that is the handsomest one in France! What an extraordinary construction, and what fine form it has!' Then he asked who it was, and added, I shall take pleasure in showing it to So-and-so,' naming several of the principal sculptors in Paris for whom he did work.

"Some weeks after, when I went to get the bronze copy, the founder told me that these sculptors and others had seen the Lincoln and expressed themselves in the most appreciative terms of what they saw in it. Here, in substance is what they said: It is unusual in general construction, it has a new and interesting character, and its planes are remarkably beautiful and subtle. If it belongs to any type, and we know of none such; it must be a wonderful specimen of that type.'"

"One French author said, 'It seems impossible that a new country like yours should produce such a face. It is unique.' Then he asked: 'Do you know anything about the physique of this man? He must have been tall and slim, having little flesh, and very alert in action.'"

Truman H. Bartlett himself was a sculptor who made a life long study of physiognomy and facial forms and might be considered one of the early American authorities on this subject. This is his summary of Lincoln's facial construction as displayed by the famous life mask:

"A projecting face with unusual vigor and contrasts of planes; long, large, protruding ears; strong, angular lower jaw, and high chin. All lines of face, muscular or bony, strongly, firmly, and delicately marked; the forehead wrinkled to the roots of the hair. The fullness above and immediately hack of the temples very rich and firm, not only giving an important contrast to the line of the face below, but finishing that part of the head with a commanding form and outline.

"The character of the profile is also unusual, in the character of the lines and in their construction: first, the full line of the forehead, carried from the top of the nose upward; second, the projecting nose, practically straight, and the distance from its end back to the upper lip, which is greater than with ordinary noses. The nose is thick in its body and wide on the top when looked at in front, and thus helps to make a harmonious face, by catching more light than an ordinary nose. The distance from the top of the nose, when seen in profile, to the inner corner of the eye, is again unusual. The end of the nose appears almost blunt, but its outline, when carefully examined, is varied in form and very delicate. The skin, so far as call be judged from a somewhat worn mask, is not marked into small sections, as in most skins, but is comparatively smooth, and indented with little holes, like enlarged pores, suggesting an individually of its own."[3]

Mr. Lincoln did not have to wait long after his nomination at. Chicago had been announced in 1860 before he was besieged by artists, and he could no longer appear as a novice as he did in the studio of Volk.

This leads us to mention the first group of artists who made portraits of the president from life.


C. A. Barry

Mr. C. A. Barry, a noted Massachusetts artist, was delegated by a group of Boston citizens to go to Springfield, Illinois, and make a crayon drawing which could be used as the basis of a lithograph. The reminiscences of Mr. Barry contain some interesting sidelights on Mr. Lincoln during the sittings. He arrived in Springfield on the last Saturday in June, 1860. After explaining his mission and offering a letter of introduction from Governor Banks Mr. Lincoln addressed him as follows:

"They want my head, do they? Well, if you can get it you may have it; that is, if you are able to take it off while I am on the jump. Rut no quills in my nose; I have had enough of that; and don't fasten me into a chair.''

Barry said, "I learned afterwards from his own lips that he had never sat for a portrait, except photographic ones, but that Sculptor Volk of Chicago had 'plastered' him, so he termed it, sometime in (1860) for a bust. The arrangement, as made between Mr. Lincoln and myself, was that we were to meet at his room in the court house on the following Monday morning at.seven o'clock, and this is the way the said arrangement came about. Twisting Governor Banks' letter in his large furrowed hands, he said:

"' I suppose you Boston folks don't get up at cock-crowing as we do out here. I'm an early riser, and my rising doesn't mean nine o'clock in the morning, by any means. Now, I'll tell you what we'll do. You come to my room at the court house on Monday at seven sharp, and I will be there to let you in'

"Monday morning came, and seven o'clock came, and at precisely that hour I turned the corner of the street upon which the court house faced to see, coming towards me from the other end of the sidewalk, my queer sitter.

"I worked faithfully upon the portrait, studying every feature most carefully for ten days, and was more than fully rewarded for my labor when Mr. Lincoln, pointing to the picture, said: 'Even my enemies must declare that to he a true likeness of 'Old Abe'."

Artist Barry related this story as a part of his experience in connection with the portrait: "When it was on exhibition in Mr. Nichols' room in New York and standing on an easel in the middle of the room facing Broadway, a short, thick-set gentleman walked in. He did not speak to me; I did not speak to him. He stood a short distance from the picture for a little while, then -- I had turned my head to look at him -- stepped forward and, folding his arms across his breast, said slowly with clear utterance: 'An honest man, God knows.' The next instant he passed out of the room. It was Stephen A. Douglass."[4]

This calls to mind that the artist, Volk, was a great admirer of Douglas and his son, Douglas Volk, was named for the Illinois Senator and debater.

The lithograph made from the Barry painting is often called "Lincoln -- The Greek God." A reviewer has said that the artist spent ten days studying his temperaments and moods; also observed him in action and repose and his very heart's emotions. Then stamped these reactions on his portrait.


Thomas Hicks

Mr. Barry in his reminisces was somewhat mistaken about his having been the first artist, aside from Volk, who had been given a sitting by Mr. Lincoln, as two weeks before this Thomas Hicks had visited the president and not only secured sittings for a portrait but also a brief autobiographical sketch of Mr. Lincoln, as well.

When the news of Lincoln's nomination reached New York, Hicks was engaged to go to Springfield as soon as possible to paint a portrait which was to be used for lithographing. Before leaving he had an interview with Horace Greely who, upon presenting a wood cut of Lincoln, remarked, "There, I say, that is a good head to go before the people."

Hicks was supplied by Charles Dana with a letter of introduction to William Herndon., Lincoln's law partner. In due time he was introduced to Mr. Lincoln and said, "When I stood in the presence of a tall, gaunt man with a pleasant expression on his well marked features, and has received a genial, hearty handshake from his long, swinging arms I saw there was plenty of character with which to make a desirable likeness."

After Lincoln had learned Hicks' mission he consented to sit for his portrait; the details for the work were quickly arranged, and within an hour Hicks was at work.

One of Lincoln's guests during the period the portrait was in progress alluded to the portrait remarking that undoubtedly Mr. Lincoln had to give much time to this kind of work. He replied as follows:

"No, this is the first time that I have had this specific sort of picture made, but I have had the sun picture made several times."

As the work on the painting advanced Hicks says that Lincoln became more interested in its progress and commented as follows:

"It interests me to see how, by adding a touch here and a touch there, you make it look more like me. I do not understand it, but I see it is a vocation in which the work is very fine. I once read a book which gave an account of some Italian painters and their work in the fifteenth century, and, taking the author's statement for it, they must have had a great talent for the work they had to do."

When the portrait was finished Mr. Lincoln commented on it in these words:

"It will give the people of the East a correct idea how I look at home, and, in fact, how I look in my office. I think the picture has a somewhat pleasanter expression than I usually have, but that, perhaps, is not objection."

This is Mrs. Lincoln's reaction to the picture as related by Hicks:

"Yes, that is Mr. Lincoln. It is exactly like him, and his friends in New York will see him as he looks here at home. How I wish I could keep it, or have a copy of it."[5]

The lithograph produced from this: Hicks' painting makes Lincoln look ten years younger than he really was at that time and it is often called "The Youthful Lincoln." These prints lithographed by Grozelier and published by W. Schaus have become very rare. The Lincoln Historical Research Foundation is fortunate in owning the very copy that was presented by Henry Watterson to Addison H. Siegfried.


Alban J. Conant

Close on the heels of Barry and Hicks came Alban J. Conant, and Lincoln by this time must have thought that the remark of a recent visitor about sitting for paintings taking up much of his time was in realty a prophecy.

If Lincoln had passed some mild criticism on Hicks' work for making him appear too pleasant, he certainly was surprised when the finished Conant painting was before him as it is known now as "The Smiling Lincoln."

Conant was commissioned to paint the presidential candidate by William McPherson of St. Louis. He was then living in that city. He arrived in Springfield two months before the election when the campaign was at its height, and the painting was made in Lincoln's office in the State House at Springfield where the other studies had been made. He says that he placed a bench in the rear of the easel for Lincoln's guests and the portrait was made as Lincoln conversed with his friends.

A statement signed by A. J. Conant on March 15, 1911, gives a very fine summary of Conant's contact with Lincoln:

"As previous to the time of my visit to Springfield I had seen only crude photographs and newspaper representations, which gave his rugged features in repose, my first sight of him was a revelation. This beaming expression of the man who stood transfigured before me was the one I was resolved to do my utmost to transfer to canvas. At the first sitting on the following day, he carelessly dropped into a chair I had placed for him; but what a change in expression. It was not the Lincoln I had resolved to paint, -- not the genial, animated person of the day before, -- but instead the Lincoln of the newspapers. The problem, then, was how to divert from his mind the absorbing questions which overwhelmed him. Not until I spoke of his joint debate with Stephen A. Douglas did Lincoln show himself again; but after that I had little trouble in calling him out. A question about his store-keeping experiences, his early life, his flat boat trips to New Orleans, or how be became a lawyer,-- any of these would do it. I was also greatly helped by frequent visitors who sat behind me, thus facing him, and with whom he kept up an animated conversation.

"Mrs. Lincoln's emphatic approval was very gratifying to me. 'Oh! that is excellent, excellent,' she exclaimed one day when she saw the nearly completed portrait. 'It's the best likeness of him ever taken. He looks there as he does when his friends are about him. I hope he will look like that after the second of November.' "[6]

The lithographers who have continued to reproduce Conant's work have broadened the smile on Lincoln's face considerably until the Smiling Lincoln has became a laughing Lincoln.


Thomas M. Johnston

Another one of the so-called first portraits from life made of Abraham Lincoln shortly after his nomination was done by Thomas M. Johnston. He was sent to Springfield in the month of July, 1860, by a lithograph publisher, C. H. Brainard of Boston. Some excerpts from letters which Johnston wrote to his father while working on the portrait revealed his progress in the task at hand:

"July 19, 1860

"I saw Mr. Lincoln soon after my arrival. He had hardly read one letter before he consented to sit, and appointed tomorrow morning for the first sitting."

"July 20: 1860

"Mr Lincoln is a very tall, awkward-looking man, but with a face and head that I really consider beautiful in the extreme, when compared with all the pictures that have been published over his name.

"This fact is very encouraging to me. I had reason to expect to see a face that reminded one of an over-sized pear than anything else. Mr. Lincoln's title of ugly must be owing to his figure entirely.

"Tell Mr. Brainard that he can count on an attractive picture and a good likeness of Mr. Lincoln, and that I will make one, for Mr. Lincoln is a good sitter. He makes a business of it. I will go again tomorrow morning at 7:30 a. m."

''July 22, 1860

"Mr. Lincoln sat for the second time yesterday, and I have made good progress. I hope to finish it in three more sittings, for he is a first-rate sitter and a much better looking man than I had reason to suppose him to be. His ugliness is entirely owing to his figure."

"July 26, 1860

I leave for Chicago tonight. The picture is a decided. success."[7]

His prophecy about his portrait came true and the lithograph which was made from it became widely circulated throughout the campaign. One critic has observed that "It is a fine drawing full of character, clean cut, and well modeled. The eyes deep set and thoughtful are especially well done."

It might be well to pause just a moment and observe that these men who have spoken about Lincoln's personal appearance were keen observers as all artists must be. Johnston for instance was one of a family of artists, father, mother, brother and sisters, all artists. His father David Claypool Johnston, a remarkable genius, was known in his day as the American Cruikshank.


George F. Wright

If Lincoln had been besieged as a nominee by individual artists begging for sittings, after he became elected to the presidency they came in droves. One account says that:

"After the election of Mr. Lincoln to the Presidency of the United States, but prior to his going to Washington to assume his duties, some twenty artists assembled to paint his portrait. Mr. Lincoln had not time for separate sittings, so agreed to perform a certain amount of work each morning in the Old Legislative Hall, where they could all set up their easels at the same time."

It is claimed that George F. Wright was among this group of free-for-all painters and that his work was so satisfactory that ii; was purchased by Mr. Lincoln and presented to a very close friend of the family. The present owners of the portrait claim that it is the only portrait in oil ever purchased by Mr. Lincoln. The portrait is in vivid contrast to the Smiling Lincoln and shows Lincoln in rather a dreamy melancholy mood. Inasmuch as it was not put in circulation through the lithograph process at the time it is not well known but is one of the very best studies of the Lincoln we know best.[8]

J. Henry Brown

The miniature by J. Henry Brown must have a place in these studies of original portraits from life. It was created at the suggestion of Judge Read of Philadelphia who had become disgusted with the caricatures of Mr. Lincoln which he halt seen and who sent Brown all the way to Springfield to secure a good picture of him.

Mr. John G. Nicolay, one of Lincoln's secretaries, on August 26, 1860, wrote to a friend making some comment on this miniature. He said:

"Did you ever see a real, pretty miniature? I do not mean an ambrotype, daguerreotype, or photograph, but a regular miniature painted on ivory. Well, a Philadelphia artist (Brown, his name is) has just been painting one of Mr. Lincoln, which is both very pretty and very truthful -- decidedly the best picture of him I have ever seen. It is about twice as large as a common quarter-size daguerreotype or ambrotype, but so well executed that when magnified to life size one cannot discover any defects or brush marks on it at all. I wish you could see it. It gives something of an idea of what a painter -- I mean a real artist -- can do. It has been painted for Judge Read of Philadelphia, who become so disgusted with the horrible caricatures of Mr. Lincoln which he had seen, that he went to the expense of sending this artist all the way out here to paint him this picture. I had a long talk with the artist today. He says that the impression prevails East, that Mr. Lincoln is very ugly -- an impression which the published pictures of him of course all confirm. Read, however, had an idea that it could hardly be so -- but was bound to have a good-looking picture, and therefore instructed the artist to make it good-looking whether the original would justify it or not. The artist says he came out with a good deal of foreboding that he would have difficulty in making a picture under these conditions. He says he was very happy when on seeing him he found that he was not at all such a man as had been represented, and that instead of making a picture he would only have to make a portrait to satisfy Judge Read. He will go back home as agreeably disappointed in Mr. Lincoln's manners, refinement, and general characteristics, as in his personal appearance."[9]

A very fine reproduction of this painting reproduced in colors was printed in the Century Magazine for February, 1909. The original was then owned by Robert T. Lincoln, son of the president. Although done from life more than sixty years ago I dare say it will resemble very closely the painting to be unveiled at this time. It is the likeness of that large group of Kentuckians who have helped America to contribute to the world a new type of manhood in the mould of Abraham Lincoln.

It is the hope and expectation of those who have gathered here to participate in the dedication of a portrait of Abraham Lincoln by Charles Sneed Williams that this study will contribute much to the establishment of what we may call the true American type.


* Director, Lincoln Historical Research Foundation of The Lincoln National Life Insurance Company.

1. The Forum. Feb. 1894, p. 724.

2. Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. July, 1915.

3. The Century Magazine. August, 1907, pp. 391-407.

4. The Granite Monthly. Oct-Dec. 1904, pp. 102-104.

5. Portrait Files, Lincoln Historical Research Foundation.

6. Painting Files, Lincoln Historical Research Foundation.

7. Boston Sunday Globe, February 15, 1932.

8. Painting Files, Lincoln Historical Research Foundation.

9. The Century Magazine. February, 1909, p. 637.


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