Remembering President Lincoln and his Deeds
When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, only days after the war ended, illustrators, painters, and sculptors rushed to produce artworks of him. In fact, vastly more images were made of Lincoln after his death than during his life. He remained an important subject in art for years after his death. Artists almost always made scenes from Lincoln’s life look more spectacular than they really had been. Most thought it was their duty to make Lincoln’s life and death look as meaningful as possible. Some artists even depicted Lincoln as holy, as D. T. Wiest did in his 1865 print In Memory of Abraham Lincoln: The Reward of the Just.
At the same time, some artists wanted to create believable images. They went to great lengths to get enough information to make accurate pictures, for they often had not met the people or witnessed the events they wanted to portray. In his 1868 painting The Last Hours of Abraham Lincoln, Alonzo Chappel shows the president on his deathbed, surrounded by dozens of people who visited him in the last day of his life. In reality, the room could not hold so many visitors at one time; but the artist wanted to show clearly all who were close to the event, so he put them together in one space and relied on available photographs to portray them with accuracy.
Many in the North regarded Lincoln as the last casualty of a horrible war, almost as a sacrifice to the conflict itself. This was one reason that prints and small statues of Lincoln and his achievements were especially popular among Northern citizens. In the 1860s, tabletop sculptures—fine-art objects designed to make a household look elegant—became very popular, and war-themed versions, such as The Council of War by John Rodgers, united the public's desire to remember war heroes with a trend in home furnishings of the time. Large-scale sculptures provided a public focus for remembering Lincoln. For decades after the war, monuments to Lincoln were placed in town squares and significant places, mostly in the North but also in the South.
The one-hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1963, inspired artists again to remember the president. Artworks of the Civil War era took on a new meaning during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Many artists saw direct parallels to the political challenges of the 1960s in these Civil War-era pieces. The 1963 painting Lincoln Speaks to Freedmen on the Steps of the Capitol at Richmond, by Gus Nall, refers to the president’s historic visit to the Confederate capital a century earlier, on April 4, 1865, the day after the city fell to the Union. This artwork depicts the same event that Dennis Malone Carter portrayed in his 1866 painting, Lincoln’s Drive Through Richmond, but shifts the focus from the reaction of civilians to the strength of African American soldiers.
Long after the Civil War ended artists continued to represent its heroes, pivotal moments, and impact on everyday people. The war’s enduring interest for artists and American audiences illustrates the complexity and importance of the event. It had positive outcomes, including the end of slavery. But its consequences were devastating for those who lost loved ones. These works of art help to keep the lessons and memory of the Civil War alive.