- 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
Even if the canvas had not been dated 1856, we still would have concluded two things about the portrait: First, Jenkins must have painted it before November 1860. Once Lincoln grew a beard in November, there was no reason to paint him without one. The artist Jesse Atwood added a beard to Lincoln’s face within weeks of completing his beardless portrait, and sheet-music publishers and printmakers like Currier and Ives slapped makeshift beards on their beardless prints to satisfy the public demand for current images of the new President. Second, Jenkins must have painted the portrait from life. Comparing the portrait side by side with each of the 128 known photographs of Lincoln made it obvious that Jenkins had not copied any of them. Nor is it likely that his portrait is based on a composite. It is almost impossible for an artist to consult several photographs and then paint a lifelike portrait that does not resemble any of them. Lincoln portraitists who relied on photographs, including Thomas Hicks and John Henry Brown, always used one specific image as a model. It is, of course, possible that he might have worked from a photograph now lost, but there are two existing portraits of other subjects that we know Jenkins painted from photographs, and they are clumsy and distorted.
Ultimately the most vivid evidence that Lincoln sat for Jenkins was the quality of the portrait itself. Unlike many other Lincoln portraits, Jenkins’s Lincoln is not frozen in a studied, idealized pose. The hint of a smile looks natural. The artist captured his subject’s lantern jaw, cleft chin, and deep eye sockets with remarkable accuracy. He recorded the long vertical wrinkles in the cheeks and the mole on Lincoln’s right cheek, as well as wrinkles beside and below the eyes. He did not try to modify Lincoln’s big ears or irregularly shaped lips but painted them realistically. Finally, Jenkins painted Lincoln’s eyes their true color, an unusual hue that Lincoln called gray but that others who knew him described as hazel or green-gray.
Months of research had confirmed the emotional response we both felt the first time each of us laid eyes on the beardless portrait. We were standing in the presence of Abraham Lincoln, and the artist who painted him must have stood there too, more than 130 years ago.
Why did Jenkins paint Lincoln? It was unlikely that Lincoln commissioned Philip Jenkins to paint his portrait. Although Lincoln proved a willing subject for artists and photographers, he was not vain enough to seek them out. It is more likely that Jenkins approached Lincoln and requested a sitting, planning to keep the portrait for his personal studio to attract new clients.
By 1856 Lincoln’s fame was more than sufficient to attract a local artist. That spring Lincoln was forty-seven years old, a leader of the Illinois bar and a well-known political activist. He had served four terms in the Illinois legislature and one term in the United States Congress and had run for the United States Senate in 1855. In May of 1856 he attended a political convention in Bloomington, Illinois, where he delivered what became known as the “lost speech,” a pro-Union address so moving that spellbound reporters forgot to transcribe his words.
Lincoln’s Kentucky heritage may also have attracted Jenkins. Lincoln was born in western Kentucky. Jenkins lived in that region and may have come in contact with Lincoln’s relatives. Finally, Lincoln’s looks may have intrigued Jenkins. Abraham Lincoln possessed a remarkably expressive face that looked different in almost every portrait or photograph made of him. He could appear ugly or handsome, unkempt or elegant, informal or solemn. Contemporary accounts by those who knew Lincoln frequently reveal a fascination with his physical appearance.
When and where did the sitting take place? The history books record no sitting with an artist in the month of May 1856. That in itself meant little with respect to the authenticity of the painting since much of Lincoln’s everyday life in Illinois has been lost to history. The chronologies may tell us when he visited a town, gave a speech, or tried a case, but they do not tell us how he filled all his days and nights. There was no reason to record Lincoln’s every move before he was nominated for the Presidency.
We know Lincoln spent most of May 1856 traveling throughout the Eighth Judicial Circuit, trying cases in central Illinois. He was in Pekin from April 28 through May 11, in Clinton between May 12 and May 15, in Shelbyville on May 16 and 17, in Urbana from the nineteenth through the twenty-third, in Danville from the twenty-fourth through the twenty-seventh, in Decatur on the twenty-seventh and twenty-eighth, and in Bloomington for the state Anti-Nebraska convention on the twenty-eighth and twenty-ninth. On May 30 Lincoln returned home to Springfield, where he spent the last two days of the month. Philip Jenkins and Abraham Lincoln could have crossed paths in any one of these towns.
Perhaps someday more information on Philip Jenkins and his portraits of Abraham Lincoln will turn up. An unknown letter from Jenkins to Lincoln, the artist’s diary, the missing portrait of Senator Logan, or even a photograph of Philip Jenkins may still await discovery. The chance of finding any of these items may seem remote, but then so were the odds of discovering the first life portrait of Abraham Lincoln more than 130 years after it was painted.