- Historic Sites
Lincoln From Life
Last year two scholars working separately uncovered a pair of previously unknown portraits of Abraham Lincoln. One of them—which seems to put us in the very presence of the man—turned out to be the first ever painted.
March 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 2
The inscription was startling. If Jenkins had painted Lincoln in the summer or fall of 1860, the discovery of his unrecorded portrait would be significant. However, if Jenkins had painted Lincoln in 1856, his canvas was not merely another rare campaign portrait but the very first portrait of Abraham Lincoln ever painted.
The portrait prompted a string of questions. Who was P. O. Jenkins? Why did he paint Lincoln four years before his nomination for the Presidency? Did Lincoln sit for the portrait, or did Jenkins copy a photograph, a practice common among nineteenth-century artists? Did Jenkins sign the Lincoln and other portraits in his own hand, or did a family member add the inscriptions later to identify the paintings? Did other Jenkins portraits exist?
A thorough search of the attic produced no more paintings and no documents pertaining to Abraham Lincoln, P. O. Jenkins, or any of the portraits hanging downstairs. The attic yielded thousands of family letters, photographs, and documents, but not one dated before the 1870s. Fortunately the paintings themselves provided valuable clues about the artist.
The information on the Willie Jenkins portrait indicated that he and his father either lived in or visited Bardstown, Kentucky, in 1867. The December date suggested that they lived there. Itinerant artists in nineteenth-century America often holed up at home for the winter and traveled in spring and summer, when the climate was more hospitable and the roads easier. If P. O. Jenkins painted a portrait in Bardstown in the middle of winter, Kentucky was probably his home.
The census records for the counties in western Kentucky confirmed that suspicion and provided new information on the artist and his family. The federal census revealed that the P stood for “Philip” and confirmed that he was related to the Manns. Jenkins and William Henry Mann were brothers-in-law; Philip married William’s sister, Jemima Jane, on August 20, 1845, in Columbia, Kentucky. Between 1840 and 1867 Jenkins lived in Hardin, Boyle, and Christian counties, Kentucky. The federal census for Boyle County taken in August 1850 records Jenkins’s age as thirty-three and his occupation as “painter.” The 1860 census for Christian County lists him as “portrait painter.” Jenkins probably traveled to central Illinois occasionally to visit his wife’s family, and he must have been in Illinois in the spring of 1856, when he painted his brother-in-law, his sister-in-law, and Abraham Lincoln.
If Jenkins listed his occupation as an artist in the 1850 and 1860 census records, he had probably painted a fair number of portraits during those years. Queries to museums across the country turned up two more portraits that provided additional clues. In 1868 Jenkins painted a portrait of Dr. John Warner from the town of Clinton, Illinois—further evidence that Jenkins traveled between Kentucky and Illinois. In November 1874 Jenkins painted a portrait of Benjamin Helm Bristow, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, in Washington, D.C. The November date suggested that Jenkins had moved to the national capital. Since Bristow was a public figure, correspondence between artist and subject might have survived. A trip to the Library of Congress, the repository of Bristow’s papers, would provide the answer. There, amid thousands of pages of correspondence, were two handwritten letters from Jenkins to Bristow, including the very one inviting him to sit for the portrait:
205 A St. SE Washington, D.C., June 30, 1874,
My Dear Sir.
… I take this method of inviting you to call at my Studio at your earliest convenience, to see the portrait I have painted of Senator Logan of Illinois.
As already indicated to you, I desire to paint a likeness of you, for my Studio as soon as you can command the leisure to sit for me. Could you call, say tomorrow or next day, at 5 or 6 P.M. ? …
Very Respectfully Yours, P. O. Jenkins
The letter to Secretary Bristow revealed several important pieces of information about its author: It disclosed that Jenkins painted a now-lost portrait of John A. Logan, the Illinois senator and former Civil War general; it authenticated Jenkins’s signature on the Lincoln and other portraits discovered at the Mann family home—he signed the letter and portrait with the same distinctive handwriting—and, finally, it provided insights into the way Jenkins conducted his business. The invitation for Bristow to sit for a portrait “for my Studio” suggested that Jenkins solicited prominent men to pose for likenesses that he then kept and displayed to advertise his connections and talent to less illustrious clients.
Washington, D.C., city directories confirmed that Jenkins lived at 205 A Street, SE, in 1874 and 1875, but the directories for subsequent years suggested that he did not prosper. He lived at eight different addresses, and he never had a studio outside his home. In some years he failed to have himself listed in the business section of the directory. On one occasion he even reverted to listing himself as a physician. Philip Jenkins died in August 1892 at the age of seventy-five.
Although James Swanson didn’t know it at the time, another Lincoln student, Lloyd Ostendorf, had discovered a second portrait of Lincoln by Jenkins and was also on the artist’s trail. Neither of us realized that he had discovered one of a pair of portraits by the same artist. Instead, we pursued our research independently.