Lincoln From Life

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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.”

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