Lincoln photo unpacked

The National Portrait Gallery is opening a huge exhibit on Abraham Lincoln. It includes this photograph by Alexander Gardner in 1865, shortly before the president’s assassination, a print made from a glass plate that had cracked.

Lincoln in 1865

Art critic David Brown calls it “one of the four or five greatest and most moving photographs ever taken of a human being.”

The crack (which is rendered so crisply that it appears to be an indentation in the paper) both records and predicts. It symbolizes the broken country that Lincoln restored to unity but whose wound he couldn’t erase. It portends the violent, veering trajectory of the bullet that would kill him.

But the crack is only part of the story.

Lincoln’s face is careworn, his expression one of seemingly infinite patience. Some think he has a Mona Lisa smile. He is seated off-center and the light-sepia background is blank. The pose is intermediate between a conventional portrait and a half-body view.

Furthermore, Gardner’s camera catches only Lincoln’s lips, beard and part of his nose in focus. The far shoulder is a featureless blur. His ear — oversize, attentive — is indistinct. Even his left eye, which is as deep and complex as the vortex that took the Pequod down, isn’t quite sharp.

The impression is of Lincoln receding from present tasks into history.

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  • Susan aka organshoes

    The photo does give him a ghostly quality.
    The look in that left eye of his seems to simultaneously look at the photographer (and all us onlookers) and gaze thoughtfully past him (and the rest of us).
    A fascinating photo of an endlessly fascinating man.
    Thanks, Dr. Veith.

  • Lincoln is clearly very tired here. One of his eyes always tended to droop when he was exhausted. Also note how his beard, which had been full along his jawline early in his presidency, has been reduced to what is basically a goatee. He didn’t shave it that way. The whiskers just stopped coming in.

    And yet there’s good humor and relief in his expression, as if he’s drawing a deep breath and saying, “Thank God it’s over.”

  • Susan aka organshoes

    ‘The whiskers just stopped coming in.’
    The man was spent. Can’t think of another president who so spent himself.

  • Bruce

    It is true that his visage reflects the weight of the world. A bloody civil war on the nation’s lands, his relationship with his wife, worries about the economy, and perhaps seeing a dim light at the end of the tunnel which was his dual-term presidency no doubt figured into that tired look. I thought, though, that in his eyes there was a bit of something lively–as though he were saying: “There’s still some life–and a few tricks–in this old guy yet.”

    I’ve seen that smile–or whatever it is–on the faces of old, tired farmers before. It is not resignation, nor is it liveliness. It is the look of a man who is nearing the end of a conflict that has nearly done him in, but that he thinks he’ll win.

  • Ben

    Nice post — by the way, you can see the portraits in the exhibition here, including images of a younger, beardless Lincoln: