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Who’s Who?

June 2024
10min read

A historian of American portraits tells how he determines whether a picture is authentic—and why that authenticity matters

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.

The difficulty arises when we have limited and insufficient knowledge of what a historical figure truly looked like. Take, for instance, the five daguerreotypes of the lovely young women on pages 80–81. They all resemble one another, yet each image is somehow different. The gentleman in figure 2 is the young Rutherford B. Hayes, the future nineteenth President of the United States. The woman beside him is his wife, Lucy Ware Webb. Rutherford would have had no difficulty recognizing Lucy in figures 3 and 4. We know this is Lucy too because of the provenances of these daguerreotypes- both images were part of Hayes’s personal photographic collection. Yet young Hayes would have had no more of a clue than we do to the identities of the two other young ladies in figures 1 and 5. Those two plates were made by the noted daguerreotype firm of Southworth & Hawes, of Boston, sometime between 1843 and 1863. They are now in the collection of the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. The lady in figure 1 is half of a matching pair of portraits, whose other unidentified half is her husband. The young woman in figure 5 has the same compelling stare as Lucy Hayes. Lucy, however, probably was never in Boston when this firm was in business and consequently never had the opportunity of confronting one of its cameras. The proximity of subject and artist should always be a primary consideration when trying to authenticate life portraiture, whatever the medium.

These five images of three similar-looking women should underscore the futility of measuring eyes, ears, and noses with lines and graphs to establish positive identities. To engage in this would be similar to measuring the sun with a ruler. The use of computers for purposes of identification of historical individuals can assist perhaps in narrowing the scope of our investigations, but to rely on them for positive identification would be as futile as carbonating something inorganic, like the Great Pyramid. Try having a computer analyze black-and-white photographs of two similar-looking objects. Would the computer be able to distinguish a lemon from a lime? Or would it tell us they are the same things? Worse still, might it tell us one thing one time and something different another time? Yet slice into those distinct citrus fruits and a blindfolded person would be able to tell one from the other. Our five senses are remarkably discerning when not confused by our creative intelligence and desires.

Familiarity with the face is essential for positive recognition, because photographs of the same person can vary in appearance.

An astute sense of sight is a tremendous asset in the field of portraiture, especially when analyzing paintings and sculptures. The potential for problem solving in these media goes far beyond the rudimentary task of matching famous names with intriguing faces. What we are most interested in is portraiture that evokes life and character. The ability of an artist to capture something as intangible as personality is the genius of the art. Confronting a vigorous life portrait can be like walking in on an intimate conversation unexpectedly; suddenly those painted eyes transcend the canvas and transfix the intruder as though they were real.

Of course not every portrait pulsates when we look at it. So trained professionals inevitably ask themselves the nagging question, Was it executed from life? An artist’s signature and date, a bill of sale, contemporary letters and diaries all can lend authenticity to a portrait that otherwise may not speak forcefully for itself. And if we are unable to determine a portrait’s life status for certain, does it really matter? Yes, if it is to be viewed as a historical document, a primary record of a person’s life, much as a signed letter would be regarded.


This is especially true for portraits of historical personalities. Just as we aspire to know the truth in biography, we should not be content with less in portraiture. It could be argued that the greater a person’s national significance, the more critical we should be of his or her images. Consider, for instance, Daniel Webster, whose sensational oratory and statesmanship were in every way worthy of his striking physical presence. Although his was one of the best-publicized faces of his generation, the Boston Transcript complained in 1846: “We have never yet looked upon what we could term ‘a capital likeness’ of Daniel Webster. All portraits of him look either too glum or too tame, and lack the striking characteristics of his remarkable countenance. The engraving before us has a pleasant, thoughtful face, but it would give to a stranger little idea of the depth and intensity of his intellect. It has none of the ponderousness of his character.” On the other hand, Gilbert Stuart’s 1796 study for a portrait of George Washington, a version of which appears today on the one-dollar bill, was never finished beyond the head, yet its commanding presence has made it one of the nation’s most treasured icons. The same might be said for the last studio photograph of Abraham Lincoln, taken by Alexander Gardner two months before Lincoln died.

Would a computer be able to distinguish a lemon from a lime? Or would it tell us they are the same things?

Predictably, the quality and spontaneity of portraiture decline when artists copy their original works or when they copy from copies and other secondary sources like photographs. These more remote images of dubious integrity and authenticity pose challenges to those who study them. The portraiture of Andrew Jackson is especially instructive about the difficulties of identifying the life portraits of a long-vanished subject. Jackson was the foremost American eminence of his age; not even Daniel Webster was more frequently portrayed between 1815 and 1845. Jackson’s image appeared over parlor mantelpieces and tavern doors, on political ephemera, in cartoons, and atop outdoor monuments. Today he is depicted on countless twenty-dollar bills. Still, his image casts some dark shadows for anyone wishing to see him in his historical entirety.

The principal obstacle in piecing together his portrait record is that Jackson’s voluminous personal correspondence relates almost nothing about it. John Quincy Adams, by contrast, was fascinated with art and portraiture—his own and everybody else’s—and recorded in detail his sittings with painters and sculptors. In fact, Adams’s diary relates more about Jackson’s portraiture than Jackson ever did himself. The great problem with Jackson therefore is one of verification, specifically which artists executed likenesses of him and when and where the sittings took place.

Jackson’s image appeared over parlor mantelpieces and tavern doors, in cartoons, and atop outdoor monuments.

Remarkably, no images of Andrew Jackson are known to exist before 1815, when he became the hero of the Battle of New Orleans. On March 15 of that year, Jackson turned forty-eight. His stunning victory assured that his image would forever be included in the pantheon of great Americans. Yet largely because of Jackson’s military campaign against the Seminole Indians in the wilds of West Florida, no truthful likeness of him emerged until 1819, when he granted sittings to some of the nation’s best portraitists, Charles Willson Peale, Thomas Sully, and John Vanderlyn, to name just three. Before that time images of him were either fabricated by imaginative artists or based on a crude painting executed by Nathan W. Wheeler in New Orleans following the battle. Although largely a caricature, this oil-on-canvas portrait was engraved by the celebrated Philadelphia printmaker David Edwin and widely distributed. It is historically significant because of its early association with Old Hickory. Moreover, it is the key to understanding still another early Jackson portrait—a far more realistic one—which currently hangs in the Map Room of the White House. Tradition has long held that John Wesley Jarvis painted this likeness from life in New Orleans after the victory. Unquestionably, Jarvis’s portrait is the most convincing of the early portraits of the hero. Yet careful comparison of it with the engraving by Edwin has revealed an unexpected discovery: The White House portrait is a cleverly enhanced copy. The evidence is unmistakable when you compare the two likenesses feature by feature. For instance, the lines and shadings on Jackson’s right cheek and around his eyes are identical, and the mouths are nearly so. The most telling feature is the evolution of the shadow on the left side of Jackson’s nose. In Wheeler’s portrait it clearly is a shadow; in Edwin’s print this area has been lightened and therefore loses a measure of its original delineation. Consequently, in Jarvis’s portrait this detail is misinterpreted as a small growth on Jackson’s nose. Predictably, Jarvis copied the widely circulated print by Edwin. He probably never saw Wheeler’s original oil painting.

With imagination and skill Jarvis transformed Wheeler’s clumsy, ill-proportioned likeness into a believable representation of Jackson, albeit an unauthentic one. He improved or simplified the nose, the ears, and the uniform. Out of necessity he copied faithfully various other, less egregious features because he had nothing else by which to guide his ambitious brush. A noticeable difference in the eyes—Jackson’s left reveals greater technical skill—suggests that two different hands may have been at work here. Periodically Jarvis opened his New York studio to students, and this portrait may represent a practice session by one of them. Apparently Jarvis never touted this painting as a serious work, which may explain why no record of it has ever been found.


Obviously the human eye is limited in its ability to judge whether a portrait was executed from life. In certain cases mere shards of information can be rewarding. Take, for instance, a notice discovered recently in the Natchez Weekly Gazette of January 22, 1840. Amid reports of Andrew Jackson’s visit to New Orleans in commemoration of the Silver Jubilee of his historic victory, the paper stated that Edward D. Marchant had given James Tooley, Jr., permission to copy his life portrait of Jackson. A century and a half after the fact, this news has been a revelation. Tooley’s miniature of Jackson was always believed to have been executed from life; for years it has been on display in the National Portrait Gallery’s Hall of Presidents.

Still more surprising has been the discovery of the supposed lost likeness by Marchant, a heretofore unidentified canvas at the Union League of Philadelphia. For decades this portrait had suffered one misattribution after another. More recently the artist had been listed as unknown. Yet the portrait’s similarity to the Tooley miniature invited closer examination, to good effect. The images are nearly exact in overall composition, and even the details are the same. For instance, the shading on Jackson’s left cheek assumes the shape of a T in both paintings. Tooley’s skill as a copyist is also clearly evident in his replication of the eyeglasses and their shadow. A contemporary source noted how in Marchant’s original portrait Jackson’s “ancient spectacles … stand off in firm perspective, casting a mellow shade back upon the dimmed eye and faded cheek.”

James Tooley’s miniature can no longer claim life status. Yet its value in practical terms has only increased because of what it has revealed about Marchant’s “lost” portrait. Ironically, Marchant’s Jackson is less animated than Tooley’s second-generation miniature. Nevertheless it corroborates the legendary figure preserved in other portraits painted in New Orleans in January 1840, as it prefigures the most intriguing of the handful of Jackson daguerreotypes. In this plate, shown at the bottom of page 85, taken shortly before his death, Jackson faces the camera and posterity almost squarely. Against the dark amorphous background his countenance emerges seemingly from nowhere, like that of a specter. This candid likeness is oddly reminiscent of many caricatures of Jackson, and perhaps it was about this plate that Jackson said, “Humph, looks like a monkey.”

So much for new technology in the age of Jackson. But what about the future? What might historical portraits look like next? The New York photographer Nancy Burson offers some insight into the possibilities in her computer-generated composite photograph, The President . Created from the images of five Presidents —Nixon to Bush—this technological amalgam of eyes, ears, and grins is Burson’s attempt to “stretch the limits a little bit of what people can see.” To be sure, the result is a perfect stranger.

Still, somehow we know this face.

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