In the two-hundredth year since his birth, Abraham Lincoln remains as much a puzzle as he was to his contemporaries. “One Life: The Mask of Lincoln,” a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, shows the changing face that Abraham Lincoln presented to the world as he led the fight for the Union.
The exhibition opens today, and runs until July 5, 2009. It is part of a yearlong Smithsonian-wide celebration of the bicentennial, exploring the life and times of the nation's most mythic and transformative president.
Warren Perry, a researcher at the National Portrait Gallery, spoke with NPG historian David Ward, curator of the exhibition. The interview is excerpted below.
WP: What are your favorite objects in the exhibition?
DW: Warren, one of the great things about the Portrait Gallery is that we have a really excellent selection—probably the best in the United States—of Lincoln images My favorite image is one that a lot of people will know, which is the cracked plate photograph by Alexander Gardner, which was taken on February 21, 1885 (shown above).
In the course of removing the plate from the camera, Alexander Gardner cracked it, so it was in two pieces. And he could only create one image from it. And it’s really this wonderfully evocative picture of Lincoln at the end of the war, where he’s tired, he’s worn out, his eyes are deep-socketed. And yet he has this small smile on his face, which is one, a smile of satisfaction, but it’s also a mysterious smile. We never really know what Lincoln was thinking, and that’s why I called this show “The Mask of Lincoln.”
WP: There are a lot of photographs, daguerreotypes—these non-painted objects, real images of Lincoln. How many objects are in this exhibition?
DW: There are thirty portraits of Lincoln in the exhibition. The majority of them are daguerreotypes—photographs as we know them now. There’s several drawings, a printed document, one oil painting actually, a miniature.
Lincoln came of political age in the era of photography, with photography becoming a popular and inexpensive democratic art. And he realized, early on, that it was possible to use photography for political purposes as well as personal purposes—not just to reveal a likeness to your loved ones, or to a small group of people. But it was a way of commanding political power by disseminating your image in carte de visites and other larger pictures—such as the cracked plate that I just mentioned—larger images of yourself, essentially bill-boarding your political brand
WP: He played to the greatest and newest medium of his age.
DW: Exactly, Lincoln loved technology, and in that way he was quintessentially American. He was a working man—he worked with his hands and had a fascination with technology. He’s the only president ever to have received a patent for one of his inventions. During the Civil War he was intimately involved with the development of new technology, whether it’s in rifles, balloon surveillance, and telegraphic communication.
And he, technically, was very interested in photography. He had his picture taken a lot, from the photographers who lived and worked just down the street, actually, from the National Portrait Gallery. He would drop in and have his picture taken by Gardner, Brady, or one of the others.
And this was a commercial transaction for the photographers. Lincoln wouldn’t have to pay for the pictures, but they would then sell images, that they would display to the public. And Lincoln was very involved in, again, disseminating his image through the course of his political career.
Listen to the entire interview with historian David Ward (10:28)
For more on Lincoln, see the online exhibition for “One Life: The Mask of Lincoln.” If you visit the exhibition in person, be sure to take the cell phone audio tour, or download the tour to your mp3 player before you visit.
Abraham Lincoln/Alexander Gardner, 1865/Albumen silver print/National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution