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Saturday, February 4, 2012

Redwood Catalog: Samantha Rothenberg's entry on William Willard's Abraham Lincoln

William Willard, Abraham Lincoln, ca. 1865
Oil on Canvas, 30” x 25”
Note on stretcher:  “Wm. Willard Catalogue—[2?] 83”

A prolific painter from Sturbridge, Massachusetts, William Willard (1819-1904) created this portrait of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, the year of his death.  As an adult, Willard moved to Boston where he pursued a variety of careers before he decided to become an artist, including farmer, jeweler, actor and hatter.  Additionally, he was one of the founders of the Massachusetts Academy of Fine Arts, where he worked as an instructor for five years.  In the early 1850s, Willard became avidly interested in collecting photographs.  To that end, a contemporary publication noted in 1903 that if one were to visit the basement of the artist’s studio, he or she would find ambrotypes and daguerreotypes of a large assortment of notable people of the previous forty-five years. 
Based on the availability of Lincoln images and Willard’s enthusiasm for collecting photographs, which he often used as models for his work, it is unlikely that Lincoln actually sat for this portrait. Rather, this particular image was most likely copied from a contemporary photograph of Lincoln taken either by Matthew Brady or his studio manager, Anthony Berger.  Demand for Lincoln paraphernalia reached its all-time high after the president’s death, particularly with regard to paintings and household objects bearing the late president’s image. It should be noted that this was not Willard’s sole portrait of the president; there are records of at least three other Lincoln portraits painted by Willard, two of which are on display at the Worcester Art Museum in Worcester, MA.  The third known painting hangs at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., depicting the same well-known Anthony Berger profile photograph found on the United States penny. 

Willard’s technique of painting portraits from photographs was a new method at the time, and critics such as N.P. Willis asserted that the daguerreotype and similar photographic technologies would destroy the aesthetic value of portraiture, claiming that “with his dozen or more long sittings, [the artist] has time enough to make a careful study of how the character is worked out in the physiognomy, and to paint accordingly.”   Despite such negative criticism, artists like Willard did not hesitate to make use of the new technology, especially when the portrait depicted a subject as famous and desirable as Lincoln.

This portrait was completed two years after Lincoln inflamed the Civil War’s national tensions by announcing in his Final Emancipation Proclamation speech that “all persons held as slaves within any state, or designated part of a state, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward and forever free.” Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not formally end all slavery, it ignited great amounts of hostility and fundamentally altered the character of the war between the Union and the Confederacy.  Even in death, public opinion about Lincoln was immensely polarized, divided between perceptions of him as a heroic martyr and an infamous villain. n Willard’s gracious—one might even say flattering— depiction of the president provides insight about the painter’s own politics, or, at the very least, those of his Boston-area patrons. Lincoln appears notably less gaunt and younger than he does in the photographic images that inspired this portrait. He bears a calm and pensive air, a marked difference from the worry-creased eyes and tense jaw found in the daguerreotypes. There is also an ennobling light highlighting the President’s forehead, a symbol used by painters to endow the subject with an air of illustriousness.

Willard’s portrait of Lincoln is historically significant because it depicts his subject in the year of his assassination, when the public sentiment was still divided regarding his complex legacy. Willard has captured a transitional moment in the story of the United States, before Lincoln’s reputation as one of the country’s greatest leaders was solidified into our national narrative.

Selected Bibliography:

Worcester (Mass.) Board of Trade, Worcester Chamber of Commerce, The Worcester Magazine: Devoted to Good Citizenship and Municipal Development (Worcester: Chamber of Commerce, 1903), 193-194.

Berger, Anthony. Abraham Lincoln, 1864. (accessed October 29, 2011). and 
Brady, Matthew B., Abraham Lincoln, 1864. (accessed October 29, 2011). For an extensive collection of  Lincoln photographs, also see The Library of Congress: American Memory,
Abraham Lincoln, Great Speeches: Unabridged (Mineola: Dover Publications, 1991), 98.

Beaumont Newhall, The Daguerrotype in America (Mineola: Courier Dover Publications, 1976), 78.

George Sullivan, Picturing Lincoln (New York: Clarion Books, 2000), 46.

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