- 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
Lloyd Ostendorf’s book on Lincoln photographs led the owner of the second portrait to write to him about the painting. According to the owner, the painting belonged to his ancestor James Primm of Lincoln, Illinois. Primm, a land speculator, was the most prominent citizen in Logan County, Illinois, and served as clerk of the court, recorder, and postmaster. Family tradition claimed that Primm was a friend of Abraham Lincoln, and among the family papers was a loan guarantee in Abraham Lincoln’s own hand that confirmed the story. The portrait was signed by Jenkins twice on the back of the canvas and dated 1866. The painting was in pristine condition and still in its original walnut frame. The canvas was nailed to the wood stretcher with the original copper nails. Even the stretcher was signed “P. O. Jenkins” in pencil.
It is unlikely that Lincoln commissioned the Jenkins portrait. Although a willing subject for artists and photographers, he was not vain enough to seek them out.
Ostendorf didn’t know what to make of the portrait. He had studied the face of Abraham Lincoln for more than fifty years, and his instincts told him that Jenkins may have enjoyed a life sitting with Lincoln. At the least the artist must have seen Lincoln in the flesh. The portrait was not copied from any known photograph, and it reflected an intimate familiarity with Lincoln’s face and bone structure. But the portrait was dated 1866, the year after Lincoln’s death. Ostendorf hypothesized that Jenkins had undertaken the portrait in 1865, when Lincoln was alive and available for sittings or at least observation, but did not complete the canvas until the following year.
The mystery of the bearded portrait was solved once the two portraits were brought together. Ostendorf’s intuition that the bearded likeness reflected a life sitting turned out to be correct, but for a reason that he could not have imagined until the beardless portrait came to light. Although the bearded image was not painted until after Lincoln’s death, it seemed to be from life because it was copied from the original life portrait that Jenkins had painted ten years earlier.
Unfortunately, the story of how Primm acquired the portrait is lost. It is likely that Primm and Jenkins met during one of the artist’s trips to Illinois. Primm probably paid Jenkins to paint a portrait of the martyred President—and his former friend—for display in his home outside the town of Lincoln. Rather than create a portrait from scratch, Jenkins copied his earlier portrait, aged Lincoln’s face, and added a beard. After James Primm died in 1872, the portrait passed down through several generations of Primms.
While both authors of this article knew that the beardless portrait was the source for the later work, we still knew little about the 1856 canvas. Would evidence support our belief that it was from life, or would we discover a photograph or print from which it was copied?
We had to satisfy ourselves at the outset that the portrait was actually painted in 1856. To do that, we needed to verify that Philip Jenkins himself had signed and dated the canvas. The inscription was written in a distinctive cursive hand, and two particular letters, P and J , were quite stylized. Jenkins’s letter to Benjamin Bristow and his signature on several other portraits, including the 1866 bearded Lincoln, confirmed that he had signed and dated the beardless portrait in his own hand. Furthermore, analysis of the signature under an ultraviolet lamp and an infrared video camera revealed that the inscription “Dr. P. O. Jenkins/Pinxit/May 1856” had not been altered or added to in any way. Satisfied with the authenticity of the inscription, we turned to the key question: Did Jenkins paint Lincoln from life?
There were only two possible ways that Philip Jenkins could have painted Abraham Lincoln in 1856—from a life sitting or by copying a photograph. Just two photographs of Lincoln existed in 1856, a daguerreotype made by N. H. Shepherd ten years earlier, when Lincoln had been elected to Congress, and an ambrotype or daguerreotype taken in 1854. Jenkins’s portrait bears no resemblance to either one. By process of elimination, a portrait of Lincoln painted in 1856 must have been from life.