- Historic Sites
A historian of American portraits tells how he determines whether a picture is authentic—and why that authenticity matters
July/August 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 4
More than any other features, our faces are what mark us as unique individuals. Superficially our faces are who we are. Together with names they identify us with the lives we have lived; they are our perpetual calling cards. Our interest in and curiosity about faces is a natural phenomenon, and if we are to feel a kinship with our national heritage, it matters that we recognize the faces of our American icons.
A story published in the February 1994 issue of American Heritage about a daguerreotype believed by some people to be the earliest extant likeness of Abraham Lincoln is interesting not so much for what it tells us about Lincoln as for the questions it raises about the uses of technology in the study of historic faces. In matters of an objective nature, like magnification, technology can be a great and necessary asset. But in the realm of the subjective, the powers of human discernment are primary, and computer imaging and other technologies can sometimes lead us astray. The Washington Post art critic Paul Richard has made a long career of looking at works that are by their very nature subjective. In a recent article about the efforts of the National Gallery of Art to re-examine its collection for suspicious Rembrandt paintings, Richard wrote: “While counting threads in canvases, or layerings of pigment, or the growth rings in wood panels, may lend the whole endeavor a scientific sheen, gauging authenticity remains inherently subjective. When all is said and done, scholars trust their instincts, and the judgments of their eyes.”
Individuals do not routinely change beyond recognition between the ages of thirty and fifty particularly if they have not gained or lost weight, gone bald or grown facial hair.
And so it should be with the task of identifying human faces, especially a historic one like Abraham Lincoln’s, which has been etched in our national consciousness for more than a century. What can be said about the image of the man alleged by some to be the young Lincoln? First and foremost, it does not look like the Lincoln we are used to seeing in scores of photographs, paintings, prints, and sculptures. Warning lights should be flashing all over, because our discriminating sense of vision is telling us something important. With a face as ubiquitous and distinctive as Lincoln’s, failure to recognize him should be a primary concern. Still, if we choose not to rely solely upon our sense of vision—if we accept the possibility that the man alleged to be Lincoln is indeed Lincoln—we must ask ourselves what so changed Lincoln’s adult face that it would require computer enhancement to be recognized? Individuals, men especially, do not routinely change beyond recognition between the ages of thirty and fifty (roughly the years of physical maturity), particularly if they have not gained or lost weight, gone bald or grown facial hair, or encountered some disfiguring accident. Most adults can demonstrate this truism for themselves with old family photographs.
If he were truly the same person, the man in the daguerreotype should strongly resemble the Lincoln we know from a photograph taken just a few years later. If doubts persist, consider the chin. A cleft (or dimpled) chin is one facial feature that can be unmistakably read and compared; in portraiture it is one of the fingerprints of the face. Adult faces either have one or they do not; a cleft chin is genetic and is not a trait that middle-aged people acquire, like a potbelly. Abraham Lincoln had a cleft chin; the other man does not have one.
Two other incongruities between the two portraits are noteworthy. The first is physical build. The alleged Lincoln has noticeably square shoulders; the Lincoln we see in this photograph (and in most others) has more rounded ones. The second difference is attire. Lincoln was almost always photographed dressed in a tailored—not necessarily stylish- black suit of clothing, befitting a prominent lawyer and even a President. The alleged Lincoln is dressed in homespun. With no satin waistcoat and no satin cravat around his neck, he looks like a farmer on his way to Sunday service. Whatever his occupation, his deeply sunburned face suggests that he made his living out-of-doors.
Appearance, posture, physique, and attire all are significant elements to note when studying historical figures in portraiture. Familiarity with the face in question is absolutely essential for positive recognition, because portraits and photographs of the same person can vary in appearance. Obviously the more images we have of a person, Lincoln or U. S. Grant, for instance, the more instantaneous recognition becomes. A lot of us can recognize our parents as toddlers in old family photograph albums. The same can be said of twentieth-century historical figures and celebrities who have had wide media exposure. Shirley Temple Black is a stellar example. Our recent Presidents can also be easily recognized in their youth: Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, to name just a few. Ronald Reagan is a good example of someone who has aged but whose appearance has not changed appreciably in the last half-century.