Let’s go see Old Abe
Sitting in the marble and the moonlight,
Sitting lonely in the marble and the moonlight,
Quiet for ten thousand centuries, old Abe.
Quiet for a million, million years.
-- Langston Hughes, “Lincoln Monument: Washington,” 1926
Abraham Lincoln is among the most recognized figures in United States history because so many images have been made of him. Few if any U.S. presidents have been so frequently portrayed in art, nor have images of other presidents had such lasting meaning to so many Americans. Lincoln’s personal history and accomplishments have a lot to do with this.
Lincoln was born in 1809 into a poor Kentucky family and had very little formal education. He nonetheless became a country lawyer in the then-western state of Illinois. He was even a soldier for a short time (but did not take part in any battles) and served as a one-term Illinois congressman while a member of the Whig Party in the late 1840s.
Lincoln became nationally known when he took part in several well-publicized debates with Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas during the election of 1858, in which he ran as a Republican for the senate seat. Lincoln lost the election to Douglas but gained a reputation as a possible presidential candidate. As Lincoln entered the national stage, artists began to create images of him.
This essay explores some of the many ways in which Lincoln was portrayed in art during a period of close to sixty years, leading up to, during, and after his presidency.