Abraham Lincoln: From Homely to Heroic

The astute politician transformed his image before and during his presidency.


Busy as the nominee became, juggling an avalanche of correspondence and throngs of demanding visitors, Lincoln patiently sat for a succession of painters who followed Hicks to Springfield. Along the way, Lincoln modestly convinced each artist that he was posing under protest, was too ugly to be captured on canvas, and could barely comprehend why all the fuss was being made. While playing at being self-effacing, he slyly encouraged works that spread his likeness throughout the nation and made a virtue of his rough-hewn looks.

"I cannot see why all you artists want a likeness of me," he once joked, "unless it is because I am the homeliest man in the state of Illinois." There was much truth in the outburst. Lincoln sensed he needed what today's political handlers call "image mediation." In his willingness to cooperate he became increasingly aware of how such likenesses could ease concerns about his appearance (a Southern newspaper had branded him "a horrid looking wretch"), benefit him politically, and ultimately illustrate, even influence, his place in history.

Posing was no simple matter; it required considerable effort. Long before the Kodak revolution, much less the age of the cellphone snapshot, photos routinely took many minutes to arrange and at least 20 seconds of frozen immobility to record. Painters needed days, even weeks, to prepare. Lincoln typically insisted, "Don't fasten me into a chair"—but unfailingly proved cooperative.

Sculpture was the most demanding of all artistic media. But Lincoln let Leonard Wells Volk slather his face with wet plaster, straws in his nostrils to facilitate breathing, and held still for an hour while the goop hardened into a life mask. Lincoln found the process "anything but agreeable," but he later returned to Volk's studio to sit for a bust, even agreeing to shed some clothes so Volk could capture "his breast and brawny shoulders." Lincoln must have been embarrassed. He fled the gallery so quickly he forgot to pull up his undershirt and had to creep sheepishly back to Volk's rooms when passersby on the street laughingly pointed to the sleeves he was trailing below his coattails.

Then why did he submit to the process? More than a decade earlier, Lincoln had gone to Washington as a congressman. Outside the U. S. Capitol he saw Horatio Greenough's controversial but imposing statue of a bare-chested George Washington as a Roman god. Although mocked as a "Venus in the bath," the colossal marble obviously impressed the freshman representative. Why else would he later pose half-naked for Volk? Only because he harbored the dream that he might someday inspire heroic sculpture himself.

Eventually he did. Even once the Civil War sapped his time and energy, President Lincoln made time for image-makers. Sculptors William Marshall Swayne, Sarah Fisher Ames, Clark Mills, and Vinnie Ream poked and prodded him to make what Lincoln deprecated as "mud heads," yet for which he cheerfully sat. He visited local photography galleries to provide his public a succession of increasingly sympathetic portraits for their family albums. And once he signed the Emancipation Proclamation—tellingly confiding, "If my name ever goes into history it will be because of this act"—Lincoln encouraged still more artists to immortalize him, now with an eye not just on election but on reputation. One of them, Francis B. Carpenter, enjoyed the run of the White House for six full months to create the monumental painting of Lincoln reading the first draft of his Emancipation Proclamation to his fractious cabinet—a canvas adapted into one of the best-selling engravings of the 19th century and recently revived for the cover of Doris Kearns Goodwin's best-selling book, Team of Rivals.

Even Lincoln would have been amazed by the avalanche of iconic images he ultimately inspired—few of which, from the ubiquitous copper penny (the model photo was posed by Carpenter) to the singular statue in the Lincoln Memorial (whose hands were modeled after a cast by Volk), would exist absent his carefully cloaked enthusiasm.