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A Lincoln Face-lift?

June 2024
1min read


Analyzing the new, disconcertingly off-kilter five-dollar bill last summer, a New York plastic surgeon somehow convinced Newsweek that the government had merely given Lincoln a face-lift to modernize the old portrait. Not so. The portrait on the new bills is in fact modeled after an entirely different photograph of Lincoln—but one taken at the very same sitting. And behind the two portraits lies a story that illuminates the art of presidential image-making.

The sitting occurred on Tuesday, February 9, 1864, when an artist named Francis B. Carpenter ushered the President into Mathew Brady’s Washington gallery. Carpenter had been working in the White House on a large painting of Lincoln’s first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862. He had difficulty capturing that elusive likeness. He brought in a photographer to take pictures of the President in his White House office, but the lighting proved inadequate, and Lincoln’s impish young son locked the man out of his makeshift darkroom, probably spoiling the pictures. Ultimately, Carpenter persuaded the President to visit Brady’s studios.

Out of this one productive session came the famous profile later used for the copper penny, the beloved photograph of Lincoln “reading” a large book to his son Tad (actually it was a sample photo album), and the handsome portrait first adapted for the five-dollar bill in 1928, which Lincoln’s son Robert called “the most satisfactory likeness of him.”

After Lincoln’s death, the finest photo was copied for innumerable prints; by the time it was engraved for American currency, it was already familiar to millions. But yet another picture was taken that day too. Lincoln sat in the same chair, kept his hands in nearly the same position. The difference was that the cameraman moved his apparatus around the room to his right and exposed his plate from a different angle. The result was also widely reproduced in its time, but later it faded from memory.

Now it—and not a made-over, face-lifted revision—is back on ubiquitous view. Francis B. Carpenter, for one, would have been pleased. For he rejected what we have long called the “five-dollar-bill photo” and modeled the Lincoln in his own painting on the pose that has belatedly found its way onto American currency.

—Harold Holzer

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