Abraham Lincoln: the ugly truth
The British playwright Tom Taylor – who wrote Our American Cousin, the comedy Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated – conceded the American president’s “furrowed face” and “lack of all we prize as debonair” but acknowledged that he “had lived to shame me from my sneer, / To lame my pencil, and confute my pen”.
Back in 1860, the Chicago sculptor Leonard Wells Volk, unable to get lawyer Lincoln to sit still long enough to model a plaster portrait, asked him to sit for a life mask. When Lincoln first saw the bust it inspired, he exclaimed in mock horror: “There is the animal itself!” But succeeding generations of artists came to rely on that mask to inform future portraits.
David Locke, a famous 19th-century humorist, wrote dialect-riddled parodies under the pen name of Petroleum V Nasby, and counted Abraham Lincoln among his most ardent fans. But he was anything but amused when he actually met the president and had the opportunity to study him carefully. “I never saw a more thoughtful face,” Locke remembered. “I never saw a more dignified face. I never saw so sad a face.”
As Locke appeared to understand, Lincoln’s chronically sad visage had now absorbed, now fully reflected, the riven nation’s melancholy, mirroring the United States’ unimaginable suffering as the country waged a bloody war to remain united and shed the shame of human slavery.
Later and ever since – engraved on coins and currency, enshrined in grand public statuary – Lincoln’s face evolved into an authentic national icon. It became the enduring symbol of the American experience, the man who lived the American dream and then gave his life that the nation might live – all this embodied in a face that once elicited horror, criticism, caricature and confusion.
Theodore Roosevelt kept his portrait on his desk for inspiration. Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and George W Bush all placed a statuette of Lincoln near their Oval Office desks. And when George HW Bush commissioned his own official presidential portrait for the White House collection, he directed that it show him before an earlier portrait of Lincoln.
The 20th-century artist-poet Marsden Hartley, like many painters before him, struggled throughout his career to comprehend and interpret the quintessentially American countenance that has inspired so many of his White House successors. He may have struck a chord when he speculated that Lincoln’s pained but resolute face served to cement the United States’ confidence in its own survival.
“I have walked up and down the / valleys / of his astounding face,” he wrote in verse. “I have witnessed all the golgothas / I have climbed the steep declivities of all his dreams.”
Speaking for his own time and ours, for many generations that have found reassurance in Lincoln’s suffering and optimism in those battered features, Hartley concluded: “I have scaled the sheer surface of his dignities / watching the flaming horizon with calm.”
Harold Holzer is the author of several books on Abraham Lincoln, senior vice-president of external affairs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and a consultant on the Steven Spielberg film Lincoln. A longer version of this essay was published in America’s Civil War
The soul behind the face Has Daniel Day-Lewis captured Lincoln?
How close does Daniel Day-Lewis come to re-creating the face of Lincoln – or, for that matter, his singular voice – in Steven Spielberg’s new film?
Of course, Day-Lewis has movie-star looks, and Lincoln decidedly had not. The United States’ 16th president had acne-scarred skin that, according to the English visitor Edward Dicey, looked as if it had been “indented by vitriol”. His beard was scraggly, his ears enormous, his nose elongated, his cheeks pocked with facial moles.
Thus, handicapped by his own appearance, Day-Lewis somehow conveys more than Lincoln’s looks: he captures Lincoln’s “appearance”, the soul behind the face, the personality emerging from the man who seemed to cry even when he laughed, and seemed to laugh even when he cried.
Day-Lewis evokes the Lincoln image that captivated so many 19th-century Americans, the image that has transformed a mere politician into something of a secular saint in the US.
No one knows exactly how Lincoln sounded. But Day-Lewis read the Lincoln literature closely and clearly absorbed the comments left by contemporaries who unanimously testified that Lincoln had a strikingly high-pitched but resonant voice, always in danger of lapsing into a whine but also capable of soaring to reach outdoor crowds of as many as 15,000 people, in the days before electronic amplification.
More than once, men who heard Lincoln speak in public recalled that for the first 10 minutes of his oratory he sounded uncertain, nasal and unable to break past his Indiana accent (“chair”, for example, came out as “cheer”). But after those 10 minutes Lincoln became surer, his voice more modulated, and his sparkling eyes and economical but dramatic gestures captivated audiences.