Lincoln From Life


Until recently historians believed that Abraham Lincoln was not painted before 1860, the year artists hurried to Springfield to produce likenesses of the presidential candidate. But in the summer of 1988 a lost portrait of Abraham Lincoln turned up on a farm in his home state of Illinois. Painted in 1856 by the itinerant artist Philip O. Jenkins, the newly discovered canvas captures the face of Lincoln the lawyer, political leader, and prominent citizen. It is the best portrait of Lincoln from the era that Carl Sandburg called the prairie years, and it is the only portrait of Lincoln before he was nationally known.

The discovery of the earliest portrait of Abraham Lincoln was, by itself, an important event, but an equally remarkable discovery followed. A few months later, in the fall of 1988, another lost portrait of Lincoln by Jenkins came to light. This second canvas, painted several years after the first, depicts a bearded Lincoln as President. Like the beardless portrait, it was still in the hands of a descendant of the original owner. After a yearlong research odyssey through attics, archives, and museums, Philip Jenkins’s matching portraits have been brought together, and each helps solve the mystery of the other.

The trail began at a Chicago antiques show. A dealer exhibiting a large oil portrait of Lincoln from the 1864 presidential campaign mentioned casually that he knew of an even better Lincoln painting. According to the dealer, the woman who sold the campaign portrait to him claimed that an ancestor of hers knew Lincoln and had painted a picture of him before he was elected President. The portrait, which the dealer was unable to acquire, still hung in the front parlor of the owner’s home in central Illinois.

The story sounded far-fetched. The majority of Lincoln’s sittings for artists were well documented, and the chance that an unknown prepresidential portrait was still out there, waiting to be discovered, was slim. The picture was probably just a colored lithograph or print complete with a family history that consisted more of wishful thinking than fact. Yet the story could be true. Unknown Lincoln documents still turn up occasionally in Illinois, the state where Lincoln once said he had “passed from a young to an old man.” Descendants of many of Lincoln’s friends still live in Illinois, and a few of them cherish historic pieces that no outsider has seen.

Who was Jenkins? Why did he paint Lincoln four years before his nomination for the Presidency? Did Lincoln sit for him or did Jenkins copy a photograph?

The story of the oil portrait was intriguing enough to lead one of the authors, James Swanson, to travel to a red-brick farmhouse in the heart of Lincoln country. The owner of the portrait was eager to receive a visitor who wanted to talk history, and sitting on a shaded porch, she recounted the story of her family and her painting over iced tea and Popsicles. She was eighty-six years old and had lived on her farm since she was a child. Her grandfather, William Henry Mann, who built the farmhouse, had served as an officer in an Illinois infantry regiment during the Civil War. According to family history, his brother-in-law, a “Dr. Jenkins,” was a physician and amateur artist who had painted family portraits as well as a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. In 1912 her mother had discovered ten or twelve portraits by Jenkins in the attic. All were unframed and rolled up and had suffered water damage. Her mother threw some of the portraits out and saved six—portraits of William Henry Mann, his wife, his brother, and one of his sons, a portrait of the artist’s son, and one of Abraham Lincoln. These portraits were stretched, framed, and displayed in the house, where they hung as she spoke.

After an hour or so she led the way inside. The house was kept dark to make it cool, and as she walked into the dimly lit front parlor, the walnut furniture, nineteenth-century wallpaper, hanging oil chandelier, and musty scent set the mood for Grandfather Mann to stroll into the room wearing his Civil War captain’s uniform.

Grandfather Mann was nowhere to be seen, but another presence filled the room. There, at the end of the parlor, was Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth President of the United States. But this was not bearded Father Abraham, the Great Emancipator and Civil War President. It was the image of another man, Abe Lincoln of Illinois, prominent lawyer and ambitious politician. The canvas captured Lincoln as he would have looked in his office, in court, or at a political event on any day in the 1850s—clean-shaven, wearing a dark frock coat, white shirt, and tie. The portrait possessed an intangible lifelike quality that was difficult to describe.

The portrait’s owner knew little about the man who painted it, not even his first name. Nor did she know when Jenkins had painted any of the pictures. Not one was signed on the front, but in the nineteenth century many artists signed portraits on the back of the canvas. One by one she removed the portraits from the wall. Grandfather Mann’s was signed “P. O. Jenkins/1856.” His wife’s portrait was unmarked, probably because Jenkins had painted it simultaneously with her husband’s and signed only one of the pair. The portrait of William, the artist’s son, was inscribed “Willie Jenkins/by his Pa/Bards Town, KY/ Dec. 1867.” The Lincoln portrait was the last to come down. It was signed: “Dr. P. O. Jenkins/ Pinxit/May 1856.”