Abraham Lincoln and Family

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Abraham Lincoln and Family
c. 1862
Edward Herline,  Lithographer:  Loux & Co., Philadelphia
Herline:  1825-1902
24 x 29 in.
Chicago History Museum

This print is shows a room in the White House where President Abraham Lincoln is surrounded by his family—wife Mary, and sons (in order of age), Robert (in an officer’s uniform), Willie, and Tad. But there is something strange going on here.  Willie died in February, 1862, and Robert Todd did not join the military until 1864. The family gathering shown here, therefore, could never have taken place. 

Illustrators and publishers often made “impossible” prints like this. It is a good reminder that artworks (and some photographs) are not always accurate, and that artists alter things and to achieve goals other than telling us exactly what happened. In this picture, the artist included chairs and tables, rugs, books—things that viewers would find familiar. The president is shown thoughtfully reading. (It was true that he wore glasses while reading.) Mary is shown wearing a nice dress and holding a fan, a common item for women to carry. The framed pictures of George and Martha Washington connected the Lincolns to a great American family of the past. Lincoln and Mary are portrayed fairly accurately, but the boys are presented in an idealized way—the artist is showing Willie as still a member of the family, even if he had died. Also awkward are the small feet and short legs of Lincoln himself. But none of this mattered for a public interested, as we are today, in how the President and his family looks in the house that they live in. 

1. Can you tell what toy Tad is playing with on the floor?  How does this relate to the Civil War? 

2. Why do you think it was important to portray Lincoln’s family as quiet, thoughtful and ordered? 

3. When you see pictures or television images of President Obama and his family, how are they shown?

Further reading:

Keckley, Elizabeth. Behind the Scenes in the Lincoln White House: Memoirs of an African-American Seamstress. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 2006.

The Lincoln Institute. “Mr. Lincoln’s White House.” The Lehrman Institute and the Lincoln Institute. http://www.mrlincolnswhitehouse.org/. accessed July 22, 2011.

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