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At the National Portrait Gallery: Iconic Lincoln Image on Exhibit

By Wendy Swanson

Washington, D.C.

May 31, 2024

2024 is, of course, a presidential election year. In honor of the occasion, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery is offering a special exhibit: “Picturing the Presidents: Daguerreotypes and Ambrotypes.” Items for the exhibit, focusing on these early photographic efforts, come from the gallery’s own extensive collection.

And what would a presidential exhibit be without Abraham Lincoln? In fact, a Lincoln image promises to be a highlight of the display. It's from an ambrotype pin by George Clark, created to promote Lincoln’s run for president in 1860. A gallery spokesperson describes this example of campaign memorabilia as “rare.” Yet, the image on the pin is familiar: this is Mathew Brady’s first photo of Lincoln, the “Cooper Union Lincoln.”

That photo, taken just hours before Lincoln gave his speech at Cooper Union on Feb. 27, 1860, depicted the strength of the man. The rest, as they say, is history. The press of the day picked up on the speech and its favorable reaction, as well as the impressive portrait, and spread the news. As a result, Lincoln captured the imagination of the nation. Harper’s Weekly, in fact, later used a woodcut version of the image in its front-page coverage of Lincoln as the Republican presidential nominee (May 26,1860 edition; it's the image shown above). Brady sold carte-de-visite photographs of candidate Lincoln, who credited the speech and portrait for “making him president.” 

In all, the exhibit features historic portraits of 11 American presidents. Another highlight is the earliest known photograph of a U.S. president. This is a daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams from 1843. 

Despite the name of the exhibition, visitors will see images of two presidents who served before the advent of photography. “Picturing” George Washington is a daguerreotype of Gilbert Stuart’s famous 1796 painting. Meanwhile, Andrew Jackson is represented by an ambrotype reproducing a painted miniature of “Old Hickory.” Prints of other presidents derived from these early photographic forms are also on display.

In a nod to more recent times, the exhibit includes a modern daguerreotype depicting the inauguration of Barack Obama.

“The vintage daguerreotypes and ambrotypes in the exhibition are among the treasures of the Portrait Gallery’s collection,” Ann Shumard, the exhibition curator, said. “They offer visitors a unique opportunity to view some of the earliest photographic likenesses of our nation’s presidents.”  Shumard is the gallery’s senior curator of photographs.

The exhibit, which will be on display until June 8, 2025, was planned to complement the museum’s "America's Presidents" gallery, which displays portraits of all of the nation’s past chief executives. That gallery offers visitors even more of Lincoln, including a recent must-see addition, W.F.K. Travers’ life-size portrait of the sixteenth president.

Once again on display are the models of Lincoln’s face masks and hand casts. This portion of the exhibit was designed with blind visitors in mind, as the installation includes 3-D printed reproductions of the actual casts housed in a nearby glass case. Both braille and audio tools, the latter in English and Spanish, provide narrative content to enhance the visitor experience. Special docent-led tours of the museum’s Lincoln portraits will be offered on June 27 at 5 p.m. and July 13 at 1 p.m. to register for one of these free tours, send an email to vejones

Remember, too, that the building housing the gallery is a historic and architectural gem. Greek-revival in style, the structure took architect Robert Mills 31 years to complete. The museum building qualifies as a Lincoln site. Visitors actually walk (or perhaps, even waltz a bit) in the footsteps of Lincoln, for in 1865, his second inaugural ball took place at this site, then the Patent Office Building.

The museum is definitely worth a visit for lovers of art, history, and Lincoln.



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