Lincoln Portrait

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 Lincoln Portrait [Photograph of Abraham Lincoln]
October 4, 1859
Samuel Fassett
active 1855–1875
19 x 13 cm
Everett D. Graff Collection of Western Americana
Vault folio Graff 2493
Newberry Library

Lincoln looks so young and earnest here, doesn’t he? This photograph was taken in Chicago in October, 1859, the year before he became the Republican Party candidate for President, and two years before the start of the Civil War. It was one of his wife Mary Todd Lincoln’s favorite pictures, and the one she felt best captured Lincoln’s actual appearance. Indeed, many later prints and paintings copied this image of the future President. But she and others remarked that he seemed so proper and serious in photographs. In reality, Lincoln was very expressive, told stories, and often smiled and laughed.

One of the reasons is that sitting for a portrait was not as automatic as it is today. Sitters had to be very still for about thirty seconds, often with a brace behind their necks. Smiling was not encouraged! But Lincoln cooperated with his photographers, taking an interest in what they were doing and joking about his appearance. Friends and artists often requested photographs of him, and they played an important role in his political career.

In this period, photographers’ studios were called “galleries,” to link them with places where art was made and shown. Large windows were needed for natural light since electric lights had not been invented yet. In Chicago, many photographers, including Fassett, had businesses near Lake Street in the Loop, a neighborhood that Lincoln and others often visited for its restaurants, theaters and hotels. Why would this area be a good place to locate a photography studio?

1. Do photographs capture peoples’ personalities?  Can you tell what someone is like by looking at a photo of them?  Why or why not? 

2. Today, most everyone smiles when they have their photo taken. In the nineteenth century, however, this wasn’t thought appropriate. Why do you think this was so? What other things do we do when the camera appears?

3. Lincoln had many photographs taken. How do you think this helped artists and illustrators who made artworks of him?

4. Compare this photograph with the picture taken by Alexander Gardner in April of 1865. Describe the ways that Lincoln appearance changed over the course of his presidency.

Further reading:
George Sullivan, Picturing Lincoln: Famous Photographs that Popularized the President (Clarion Books, 2000).
"Every Known Photograph of Abraham Lincoln," Accessed July 26, 2011.
Phillip B. Kunhardt, III, Looking for Lincoln: The Making of An American Icon (Knopf, 2008).

Courtesy of the Newberry Library, Chicago