…so Lincoln joked. Actually he was eager to pose for portraits.
Yet this diffident, self-deprecating man was unfailingly willing to sit for portraitists. He allowed himself to be painted and sculpted, photographed and sketched, submitting to techniques that ranged from the tedious to the painful. The resulting images were engraved and lithographed, struck on medals and coins, reproduced on banners and broadsides—just as Lincoln had intended.
For in all likelihood, Lincoln was the first campaigner and President to be aware of the potential of mass communications. With a technological revolution taking place in the graphic arts—manifested in the appearance of picture weeklies like Harper’s and Leslie’s , the proliferation of the carte de visite photograph, and the booming popularity of print portraits—Lincoln first came to realize that portraiture could help him win elections. “If it pleases the people,” he said of one image, “I am satisfied.” Once in office, he came to believe that reverential portraiture could help him maintain the support of his constituency, while recording his face for posterity.
The Lincoln picture collection started accumulating soon after his nomination to the Presidency in 1860. The policies of the new nominee were familiar enough, but his name was less so (some still called him “Abram”), and his face was all but unknown outside his native Illinois. What was worse, some correspondents were already suggesting that Lincoln was so homely he was unfit for the Presidency. This was a man described by his contemporaries as having a coarse, pimply skin, “indented as though it had been scarred by vitriol.” Nathaniel Hawthorne called him “the ugliest man I ever put my eyes on.” Remedial action was clearly needed, and few of the sympathetic artists who sought him out that summer were turned away. Not surprisingly, some of the portraits made him look positively handsome.
The variety and volume of Lincoln art helped transform him from a relatively unknown prairie lawyer into the most familiar face of his or succeeding generations.
On the following pages we offer a selection of the hundreds of varied likenesses of Lincoln as candidate, nominee, and President—all made between 1860, when he started running for the nation’s highest office, and 1865, when he was assassinated.