objects

“So Difficult to Instruct”: Re-envisioning Abraham and Tad Lincoln

This photograph of Abraham Lincoln and his son Thomas (Tad) was taken by Anthony Berger in Mathew Brady’s Washington, D.C. […]

This photograph of Abraham Lincoln and his son Thomas (Tad) was taken by Anthony Berger in Mathew Brady’s Washington, D.C. studios on February 9, 1864. It shows the president and his son looking at a photograph album (a prop that was lying around the studio) together. The photograph was commissioned by the painter Francis Carpenter, who was at the time working in the White House preparing sketches that would serve as the basis for his First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln (1864). This particular sitting led to a number of images that have become part of U.S. national iconography. For example, a portrait of Abraham Lincoln that was taken on this day was used as the basis for the image that appears on the five-dollar bill. This image of the president and his son, however, soon to become one of the most popular and most reproduced depictions of Lincoln, was not published or otherwise publicly distributed until a year after its completion. Only after Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 did the image become ubiquitous. The variety of changes introduced to the image in its reproductions offers a fascinating glimpse into how iconography produces narratives and fantasies about national history, culture, and values.

 

 1. The book that Lincoln held in his lap in the Mathew Brady studios was a photograph album. However, in most reproductions of the image, the book is either captioned as, or made to look like, a Bible. The 1865 Currier & Ives' lithograph based on the pose was titled President Lincoln at Home, Reading the Scriptures to His Wife and Son. One can see the deliberate visual changes made by the artisans reproducing the image by comparing two engravings published by H.B. Hall. Look closely at the visual detail of the books: the first reproduces the book as a photo album, the second as a Bible. Lincoln himself worried over the book's falsely "biblical" appearance. In Lincoln in Photographs, Lloyd Ostendorf relays Lincoln's concern that any visual fabrications representing the photo album as a Bible would amount to "a species of false pretence." Lincoln's brief but suggestive comment makes explicit what the photograph's changing nature asserts implicitly: images can and do lie.

1. The book that Lincoln held in his lap in the Mathew Brady studios was a photograph album. However, in most reproductions of the image, the book is either captioned as, or made to look like, a Bible. The 1865 Currier & Ives’ lithograph based on the pose was titled President Lincoln at Home, Reading the Scriptures to His Wife and Son. One can see the deliberate visual changes made by the artisans reproducing the image by comparing two engravings published by H.B. Hall. Look closely at the visual detail of the books: the first reproduces the book as a photo album, the second as a Bible. Lincoln himself worried over the book’s falsely “biblical” appearance. In Lincoln in Photographs, Lloyd Ostendorf relays Lincoln’s concern that any visual fabrications representing the photo album as a Bible would amount to “a species of false pretence.” Lincoln’s brief but suggestive comment makes explicit what the photograph’s changing nature asserts implicitly: images can and do lie.

 

Further Reading

For more on photographic depictions of President Lincoln, see Charles Hamilton and Lloyd Ostendorf, Lincoln in Photographs: An Album of All Known Poses (Norman, Okla., 1963), James Mellon, The Face of Lincoln (New York, 1979), and Philip B. Kunhardt III, Peter W. Kunhardt, and Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr., Lincoln, Life-Size (New York, 2009). For more on the images of Lincoln circulated through popular prints, see Harold Holzer, Gabor S. Boritt, and Mark E. Neely, The Lincoln Image: Abraham Lincoln and the Popular Print (New York, 1984). Recent scholarship on the importance of African American contributions to and commentary on nineteenth-century visual culture have revitalized the study of our national visual past. See, in particular, Shawn Michelle Smith and Maurice O. Wallace, Pictures and Progress and the Making of African American Identity (Durham, N.C., 2012) and Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer, Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery (Philadelphia, 2012). In a forthcoming essay in the journal MELUS, I provide a more extended close reading of Elizabeth Keckley’s memoir in relation to this famous image.

 

This article originally appeared in issue 13.4 (Summer, 2013).