Following his success in the debates of 1858, Lincoln won the Republican presidential nomination in May 1860, with help from powerful Chicago friends, such as the newspaper publisher Joseph Medill. From that time on he was a very popular subject for artists. Artworks of Lincoln were produced for many reasons—for news, politics, sale, and commemoration—and in a variety of media, such as prints, paintings, sculptures, and photographs.
Some images of Lincoln produced for the campaign were intended to tell voters about the candidate. The large oil painting, The Rail Splitter by an unknown artist, emphasized Lincoln’s humble origins, presenting a man who had worked his way up in life. Others were meant to simply show his appearance, such as the Campaign Ribbon, A. Lincoln by John Chester Buttre, which was pinned to clothing and worn as a sign of support.
After Lincoln was elected President of the United States in November 1860, artists and publishers scrambled to respond to the demand for portraits of him. The mass-produced print Abraham Lincoln, Sixteenth President of the United States by Currier & Ives was created quickly and sold for a modest price.
People also wanted to see pictures of Lincoln’s wife and children. The print Abraham Lincoln and Family by Edward Herline shows them in the White House: Lincoln is seated with his wife, Mary, and sons Robert, Willie (who had died in 1862), and Tad. Publishers were equally desperate to show the public what his home life was like at Jackson and Eighth Streets in Springfield, Illinois. Illustrators carefully drew the rooms, furniture, and objects to give readers across the country an idea of how the new president lived.
Artists and publishers often based their portraits of Lincoln on earlier prints or photographs of him, such as the Lincoln Portrait made by Chicagoan Samuel Fassett in 1859, the year before Lincoln became a presidential candidate.
Some sculptors also relied on actual casts made from Lincoln’s body, called a life mask, to help them create accurate portraits of him. Chicago sculptor Leonard Volk made casts from Lincoln’s face and hands in 1860, from which he created the bronze set Life mask and hands of Lincoln eight years later. Volk’s casts became resources for other sculptors too, and treasured mementos of Lincoln.
The way Lincoln has been depicted in paintings, sculptures, and especially photographs influences how he is thought of today: dignified, and perhaps even a little solemn or sad. Images of Lincoln, however, fail to show his true dynamic personality. He loved to tell funny stories and had an animated face that changed expressions very quickly. As Lincoln's personal secretary, John Nicolay, wrote in 1891: "There are many pictures of Lincoln; there is no portrait of him." Poet Walt Whitman commented on Lincoln’s attraction for artists and the difficulty of making an accurate image of him: “Of technical beauty [his face] had nothing — but to the eye of a great artist it furnished a rare study, a feast and fascination. The current portraits are all failures — most of them caricatures.”
Although capturing Lincoln accurately in portraits was a challenge for artists, many intentionally created exaggerated pictures of him. These caricatures and political cartoons often made fun of Lincoln's appearance. Illustrators exaggerated certain physical features, such as his great height, as in Frank Henry Temple Bellew's Long Abraham a Little Longer from 1864; or his boney face, wiry hair, and big nose and ears. Drawings by Confederate artists were especially mocking, but Northern artists were almost as harsh in their treatment of Lincoln, particularly if they disagreed with his ideas.