War Room

The changing face of Abraham Lincoln

Slide show: As the Union crumbled 150 years ago, the president's appearance began to change dramatically

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    Library of Congress

    last beardless portrait of Abraham Lincoln

    This photograph, taken by Preston Butler, a photographer in Springfield, Ill., is believed to be the last beardless portrait of Abraham Lincoln. It was one of a half-dozen ambrotypes taken on Aug. 13, 1860; the other five originals have been lost. Butler took the photograph for a miniature portrait-painter, John Henry Brown. In his diary, Brown wrote: “There are so many hard lines in his face that it becomes a mask to the inner man. His true character only shines out when in an animated conversation, or when telling an amusing tale … He is said to be a homely man; I do not think so.” Lincoln looks confident in this pose, eyes focused on the camera, arms folded gently, his mouth set firmly. Unlike with many Lincoln photographs, either he or the photographer took the trouble to fix his hair, which normally was in a state of disarray.

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    Library of Congress

    the first photograph to show Lincoln in the process of growing his famous beard

    Taken by Samuel G. Alschuler of Springfield, Ill., this is the first photograph to show Lincoln in the process of growing his famous beard. The original negative has been lost, which is why this image is dull and dappled. Supposedly Lincoln grew his beard in response to a letter he received before his election from Grace Bedell, an 11-year-old girl from Westfield, N.Y. The girl vowed to make her brothers vote for Lincoln if the candidate would agree to grow a beard. She believed that he would “look a great deal better” with a beard because his face was so thin. “All the ladies,” she wrote, “like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President.” Lincoln liked the letter and wrote back: “As to the whiskers, having never worn any, do you not think people would call it a piece of affec[ta]tion if I were to begin it now?” Yet, as this photograph, taken on Nov. 25, 1860, shows plainly, he had answered his own question, apparently deciding that he didn’t care what people might think of him in a beard. In this image, he looks almost dashing. He glares straight into the camera lens with an expression of fierce determination, augmented by a slightly arched eyebrow. One can immediately detect his “lazy” left eye. More on that later.

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    Library of Congress

    the last portrait photograph to be taken of Lincoln in Springfield

    So far as we know, this was the last portrait photograph to be taken of Lincoln in Springfield, Ill., two days before he left for his inauguration in Washington, D.C. The photographer was Christopher S. German. Lincoln’s beard has filled out in this portrait, and a few flecks of gray are clearly evident. His eyes are focused away from the lens, somewhere into the distance, perhaps as he contemplates the heavy responsibility that awaits him in the east. Just below his stiff white shirt, where his waistcoat (vest) is buttoned, his watch fob can be plainly seen. After departing on Feb. 11, Lincoln never saw Springfield again. His remains were brought back for burial there after his assassination.

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    Institute of Civil War Studies

    Lincoln sits for his portrait

    Lincoln sits for his portrait in this carte-de-visite print made from a lost multiple-image stereographic negative taken by Alexander Gardner in Mathew Brady’s Washington studio, probably on Feb. 24, 1861, a few days before Lincoln’s inauguration. This print, however, lacks the clarity of other prints found in the famous Meserve Collection held by the Meserve/Kunhardt Foundation in Pleasantville, N.Y. Indeed, this print adds distortions to the original, which is actually sharp and clear. The image also crops out Lincoln’s famous stovepipe hat, which appears in the original on the table to the right of the ornate inkstand. Stiff and formal in this pose, Lincoln nevertheless sits comfortably; his strong hands and large feet are prominent features of this print and of all the different prints made of the variant images contained on the original stereographic negative.

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    Library of Congress

    the first photograph of Lincoln as president

    This carte-de-visite image is believed to be the first photograph of Lincoln as president. Little is known about it, although a number of variants exist. One of them, which Lincoln inscribed in his own hand, was sent to Mrs. Fanny Speed, the wife of his best friend, Joshua Speed of Kentucky. Another was sent to Speed’s mother, who once gave Lincoln “an Oxford Bible” 20 years earlier. This particular image is undated, but it must have been taken after Feb. 24; more likely, it was made after March 4, 1861. The photographer is unknown. Lincoln’s beard has filled out, but he has had a haircut since the time when Slide 4 was taken, before his inauguration. On close inspection, one can note that Lincoln’s left eye looks directly into the camera’s lens, while his right eye is focused on something or someone to the right of the lens. This albumen print looks like it was made from a copy negative rather than from the original negative, which has never been found.

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    Library of Congress

    Taken by Mathew Brady or an unknown photographer in Brady’s Washington studio

    Taken by Mathew Brady or an unknown photographer in Brady’s Washington studio on April 6, 1861, this photograph shows a stern Lincoln with an almost fierce expression on his face. It was shot as the crisis over Fort Sumter moved closer to its climax; six days later the fortress would be fired on by Confederate artillery ringing Charleston harbor — the violent act that started the Civil War. This print is from the Library of Congress, but the National Archives owns the original collodion plate, the largest surviving negative of all Lincoln photographic portraits, measuring 18 1/2 inches by 20 3/8 inches. In this image, Lincoln’s “lazy” left eye is plainly visible. Scholars have offered different diagnoses to explain Lincoln’s eye malady. Some maintain that Lincoln suffered from intermittent left hypertropia (strabismus), a condition that precludes the proper alignment of one eye with the other. Others claim that ophthalmoparesis caused Lincoln’s “wandering” eye; if so, he did not have an extreme form of that particular ailment. Other experts blame a childhood injury for Lincoln’s ptosis (amblyopia or drooping upper lid): When he was 10, Lincoln was kicked in the head by a horse, which resulted in a depressed skull fracture of the left frontal bone and perhaps traumatic injury to his left eye. Whatever was the cause of his lazy eye, some scholars believe that it forced him to raise his left eyebrow in the arch seen here in order to control the focus of both eyes. Observers, however, thought Lincoln’s expression was imperious and sly. Col. Theodore Lyman remarked that Lincoln had “the look of sense and wonderful shrewdness, while the heavy eyelids give him a mark almost of genius.”

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    Library of Congress

    This profile image of Lincoln, taken at Mathew Brady’s Washington studio by an unknown photographer

    This profile image of Lincoln, taken at Mathew Brady’s Washington studio by an unknown photographer, is dated May 16, 1861, more than a full month after the fall of Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for 75,000 troops to put down the rebellion of the Southern states. It is a copy (detail) of a carte-de-visite showing Lincoln seated at a small table with Brady’s ubiquitous inkstand and the president’s stovepipe hat resting on its crown. The original multiple-image stereographic negative has not been found. The image lacks contrast and clarity because it is a print made from a copy rather than from a negative. Nevertheless, Lincoln’s sadness — an emotion mentioned by countless men and women who knew him during his lifetime and particularly during his presidency — is profoundly revealed in this photograph. Lincoln loved to read and quote Shakespeare, but he often displayed more tragedy in his facial expressions than any of the great bard’s most doleful characters. In the middle of the Civil War, Lincoln told journalist Noah Brooks that “the tired part of me is inside and out of reach.” Yet countless observers recognized Lincoln’s weariness and fatigue on his face. William Herndon, his former law partner, asserted that Lincoln’s “melancholy dripped from him as he walked.” “No element of Mr. Lincoln’s character,” wrote Henry Clay Whitney, a frequent visitor to the White House, “was so marked, obvious and ingrained as his mysterious and profound melancholy.” A portrait artist, Francis Carpenter, put it plainly: “Mr. Lincoln had the saddest face I ever attempted to paint.”

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    Library of Congress

    This is another pose (see Slide 7) taken on May 16

    This is another pose (see Slide 7) taken on May 16, 1861, at Mathew Brady’s studio. The facial expression, though, is almost exactly the same as in Slide 6, taken more than a month earlier, except that Lincoln’s head is tilted forward in this one, making him appear about ready to stand up or, at the very least, shift his position in the chair. He glares at the lens, not unlike his scowl in Slide 6. His expression suggests that this is a preferred pose, one he’s worked to perfect for the camera. There is no sadness in this portrait of Lincoln — just intensity and a plain potency. Here is a president to reckon with, despite his relatively short time on the job. Given how this photograph was framed by the unknown photographer in Brady’s shop, it is easy to detect, one more time, Lincoln’s large and strong hands; even his left hand, resting comfortably on his leg, evinces power and might — notice the prominent veins protruding near the end of his left coat sleeve. The president’s watch fob is again visible below the white V of his shirtfront.

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    Library of Congress

    Here is another photograph taken in Mathew Brady’s studio

    Here is another photograph taken in Mathew Brady’s studio on May 16, 1861, the same date as Slides 7 and 8. This image seems to follow logically after Slide 8, for Lincoln has fully leaned forward in the chair, and his left hand has been raised from his leg to suggest a pensive moment. Although the photograph looks like it’s a candid shot, capturing Lincoln deep in thought, the image in fact was carefully and deliberately posed, with Lincoln having been told by the unknown photographer not to move an inch while the shutter was pressed (or else the wet-plate image would become blurred). It could not have been an easy pose to hold for very long, although variants of this image were captured on a lost original multiple image stereographic negative. One can see Brady’s inkstand and just a portion of Lincoln’s stovepipe hat on the table. Philip W. Ayres of Springfield, Ill., remembered his mother telling him that even when Lincoln walked by in that city before this election to the presidency, “his thoughtful face was bent forward, as if thinking out some deep problem.” Most of the surviving copies of this photograph, like this slide, are grainy, a telltale sign of copies having been made from other copies rather than from the original negative. Even so, one can distinctly see the furrows on Lincoln’s brow.