The Last Hours of Abraham Lincoln

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The Last Hours of Abraham Lincoln
1868
Alonzo Chappel
1828-1887
Oil on canvas
52 x 98 in.
Chicago History Museum purchase
1971.177, ICHi-52425

This painting records one of the most tragic events in American history: the death of President Abraham Lincoln. Do you see him lying on the bed, surrounded by dozens of people? In reality, the room could not hold so many people, but the artist, Alonzo Chappel, included all those who visited the president over the course of the day he lay dying. Chappel based his portraits on images taken by Mathew Brady, the famous Civil War photographer. A publisher then made a print of Chappel’s painting, and each person in the picture was identified by number. (Can you find Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd; his eldest son, Robert; and his vice-president, Andrew Johnson?) 

On the evening of April 14, 1865, while watching a popular play at Ford’s Theatre, Lincoln was shot in the head by John Wilkes Booth, an actor and Confederate sympathizer. Carried across the street to a small boarding house and placed on a bed too small for his long body, Lincoln never regained consciousness and died early the next morning, just six days after the Civil War ended. He was the first American president to be assassinated, and the nation plunged into deep mourning and great uncertainty.  But his sudden death also made him a legendary hero for the country. As Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton said of Lincoln upon his passing, “Now, he belongs to the ages.”

Question:

1. In this painting, the artist inaccurately represented historical events to present a larger truth. Why do you think that Chappel did this? What was so important about showing all the people who had visited Lincoln? If you were an artist and wanted to accurately portray all these people at Lincoln’s bedside, how would you go about it?


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