- 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
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.
Of course, the most remarkable thing of all was that the Illinois prairie lawyer of uncertain prospects who sat for his portrait in 1856 went on to become the greatest President in American history. Thanks to Philip Jenkins, we have the only portrait of Abraham Lincoln before history claimed him, as he has not been seen for more than a century.