What Was Lincoln Really Like?


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David Gilmour Blythe, Abraham Lincoln, Rail Splitter, 1860, oil on canvas, Gift of Paul Mellon, 63.19
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David Gilmour Blythe, Abraham Lincoln Writing the Emancipation Proclamation, 1863, oil on canvas, Museum purchase: gift of Mr. and Mrs. John F. Walton, 58.56.2

This weekend marks the opening of Lincoln, a film examining the last months of the president’s life. If you haven’t yet seen the newly renovated Scaife Galleries here at the museum, we currently have four portrayals of this great American figure on view. Two by Lincoln’s contemporary David Gilmour Blythe were painted during the heat of Lincoln’s campaign for the presidency in 1860 and in the aftermath of his famous Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 (above). They depict Lincoln as his contemporaries knew him: an ambitious young politician surrounded by symbols of his messy fight for the Republican presidential nomination, and then in his notoriously disorganized White House office, in shirt sleeves and slippers as he drafts the document that would define his presidency. Blythe died in 1865, the year of Lincoln’s assassination.

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Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Abraham Lincoln: The Man, 1884–1887, bronze, Gift of Charles J. Rosenbloom, 43.8

The Museum’s other portraits reflect the transformation of Lincoln into a national hero and paragon of virtue following his death. Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ bronze Standing Lincoln is a small scale version of a monument erected in Chicago in 1887. The contrast with Blythe’s casual portraits could not be greater—the formal attire, dignified posture, and oversized chair decorated with a symbolic eagle represent Lincoln’s moral character and his place in American history. The enduring power of this portrait is suggested by Teenie Harris’ image of two students in Pittsburgh’s Rochester High School in 1950, carefully posed with a photograph of the Chicago monument. This work is not currently on view in the galleries, but here it is:

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Charles “Teenie” Harris, Ray Whittington and Gloria Puryear, at drinking fountain, with picture of Abraham Lincoln above, in Rochester High School, December 1950, photographic negative, Heinz Family Fund, 2001.35.23961.

As the president who ended slavery, Lincoln had special significance for African American painter Horace Pippin, who ranked him with Jesus Christ and John Brown as one of the three greatest men in history. Pippin chose to depict a story from Lincoln’s youth that neatly encapsulates his moral and political virtue. He shows the young Lincoln in his garret late at night, tucking away a borrowed book about George Washington which he has been reading by candlelight. When the book was ruined by rain, “Honest Abe” repaid its owner with hours of free labor.

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Horace Pippin, Abe Lincoln’s First Book (detail), 1944, oil on canvas, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James L. Winokur, 68.20

Lincoln continues to fascinate us as an exemplar of personal virtue and political courage, especially when times are hard. To what extent does the new film Lincoln embody the concerns and desires of the 21st century—or perpetuate the stories, legends, and myths found in the art of Blythe, Saint-Gaudens, and Pippin? Send your comments to lippincottl@carnegiemuseums.org, and we’ll post some responses on our blog and Facebook page—we’d love to hear your thoughts!