Every Thursday evening, the National Portrait Gallery presents “Face-to-Face,” a talk about selected portraits on view in the gallery. As part of this regular series, NPG historian David Ward discussed a few photographs of Lincoln on display in the recently opened exhibition “One Life: Mask of Lincoln.” Ward, who curated the exhibition, spoke mainly about the following portraits:
“Tousled Hair” portrait by Alexander Hesler, c. 1857
This thumb-sized copy of Alexander Hesler’s 1857 “tousled hair” portrait of Lincoln was produced in 1860 so that it could be cut out, placed in a frame, and worn as a pin or locket during the campaign.
Such partisan political symbols had long been a staple of American elections, but the heated political climate of 1860—and the need for the Lincoln organization to mobilize all its supporters—led to a plethora of new and creative ways to energize a public immersed in the political culture of the time.
Portrait by Alexander Gardner, 1861
Lincoln was the first president after photography truly came of age. He embraced the new technology, sitting frequently, and he was interested in both technological issues and composition. Perhaps because of his early struggle to make himself into somebody of substance—to make himself visible—Lincoln was acutely aware of the power of image-making.
When he arrived in Washington, Lincoln quickly arranged to have himself photographed at Alexander Gardner’s studio. These photographs were the first widely disseminated pictures of the president with his newly grown beard.
Portrait by Alexander Gardner, November 8, 1863
On November 8, 1863, Lincoln had this portrait taken by Alexander Gardner. While waiting, he read a newspaper account of the speech that famed orator Edward Everett would make at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg. Lincoln would also speak, but had yet to compose his remarks, promisingly only that they would be “short, short, short.”
“Cracked-plate” portrait by Alexander Gardner, 1865
One of the most haunting images in American history and art, this portrait was taken in February 1865. The picture of Lincoln—hollowed, careworn, and yet with a slight smile still after four years of war—is given added poignancy by the crack that appeared in the negative after it was developed.
Listen to David Ward’s Face-to-Face talk on Lincoln (26:18)
For more on Lincoln, be sure to see the online exhibition. And read more about the exhibition, in this recent article from the New York Times. Also, hear more from David Ward, in this interview about "One Life: The Mask of Lincoln."
The next Face-to-Face portrait talk is this Thursday, December 18, when Assistant Curator of Prints and Drawings Anne Goodyear speaks about the portrait of President-elect Barack Obama by Martin Schoeller. This portrait is on display in NPG’s new exhibition “Portraiture Now: Feature Photography.” The talk runs from 6:00 to 6:30 p.m. Visitors meet the presenter in the museum’s F Street lobby and then walk to the appropriate gallery.
Abraham Lincoln/Unidentified artist, after Alexander Hesler,c. 1857 (printed c. 1860)/Albumen silver print/National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Abraham Lincoln/Alexander Gardner, 1861/Albumen silver print/National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Abraham Lincoln/Alexander Gardner, November 8, 1863/Albumen silver print/Collection of Keya Morgan, New York City
Abraham Lincoln/Alexander Gardner, 1865/Albumen silver print/National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution