Earlier this month, ahead of the 214th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth (which was February 12), the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. unveiled a rare nine-foot tall oil portrait of the nation’s 16th president.
Painted by W.F.K. Travers in 1865 – the same year that Lincoln was assassinated – it is one of only three known full-length paintings of Honest Abe.
His friend and bodyguard Ward H. Lamon called it the “most lifelike picture of Mr. Lincoln I have ever seen on canvas.” It “presents a real likeness of the man, with his rugged features and irregularities of personal appearance, true to life,” he wrote.
The painting is so lifelike that contemporaneous reports say that when Abe’s widow Mary came across the portrait at a Philadelphia exposition in 1876, she fainted.
The picture garnered positive reactions when it debuted, but then fell into obscurity for over a century. For the last 80 years it’s been hanging in a municipal building in a small New Jersey town, but now it’s been restored and will be on loan to the Smithsonian Gallery for five years.
And without further ado, here it is:
1/ The 9-foot-tall life-size oil on canvas painting of President Abraham Lincoln by artist W.F.K. Travers in 1865, which proudly hangs in the Hartley Dodge Memorial Council Chambers, will begin its five-year loan to the @smithsonian National Portrait Gallery later this month. pic.twitter.com/AcqMqRE4h2
— Borough of Madison, NJ (@MadisonNJ_gov) January 11, 2023
Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery, introduced the painting on the Smithsonian website:
It is a pleasure to reunite the Travers painting with Gilbert Stuart’s Lansdowne portrait of George Washington—a highlight of the Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection—roughly 147 years after the two paintings were first displayed together at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.
Congress debated purchasing the painting for the Capitol on numerous occasions in the late 19th and early 20th century, so it is fitting that the Portrait Gallery was able to bring this work back to Washington, D.C., in collaboration with the Hartley Dodge Foundation.
This video shows just how large the painting is:
It’s finally here! This historic, life-size painting of President Abraham Lincoln by artist W.F.K. Travers is now on view in the America’s Presidents gallery.
This painting comes to us on long-term loan from the Hartley Dodge Foundation: https://t.co/PpnAjmZpwp pic.twitter.com/Z27Vipszeb
— National Portrait Gallery USA (@smithsoniannpg) February 10, 2023
The Smithsonian has a really cool interactive slideshow that describes the symbolism of many of the items in the portrait. “This life-size painting captures the enormity of the challenges Lincoln faced as U.S. president,” it begins. For instance, the inclusion in the background of a bust of George Washington is no accident—it was meant to tie together the first president and the 16th. The same goes for the famed “Washington Crossing the Delaware” painting on the wall.
Meanwhile, Lincoln holds a bound copy of the U.S. Constitution, and the Thirteenth Amendment—which passed after his death but which ended slavery in the U.S.—lies on the table. Above it stands a statue of a freed slave rising.
The Washington Post explains why the likeness is actually more realistic than photographs:
There are plenty of photographs of Lincoln, but, like most subjects of the day, he sits stiffly and somberly, and of course, is rendered in black and white. This portrait — painted in color, face relaxed with a hint of a smile, and body standing at its full 6-foot-4 height — offers viewers perhaps the best opportunity today to see Lincoln as he really was.
It’s become vogue to try to cancel Lincoln in recent years, to claim that he didn’t really want to free the slaves, that he was responsible for the deaths of huge numbers of Native Americans, and that black lives didn’t actually matter to him. RedState‘s Alex Parker has written about how protesters have disfigured Lincoln statues, taken his name down from schools, and removed long-standing monuments.
Without debating the ins and outs of everything that is Lincoln’s legacy, I would just say this: he was a complex man in a complicated world. Two things are without doubt, however—he kept the country whole, and he ended slavery in America. Those who demand perfection from historical figures are fools; there is no such thing as a perfect man here on earth.
As we celebrate Abe’s birthday, and those of all the other presidents, it’s illuminating to see this portrait resurrected. It shows Lincoln as a man, not a figure in bronze.
Happy Birthday, Mr. President.