Lincoln From Life

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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.

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.