Abraham Lincoln

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Abraham Lincoln
Cornelia Adele Fassett
48 x 30.5 in.
Chicago Public Library
Grand Army of the Republic Collection,
SPE GAR 72.256

Paintings of Abraham Lincoln were sometimes made “from life”—which means that the artist made them while Lincoln posed. But other paintings were entirely based on portrait photographs. This early painting by Cornelia Fassett may have been based on both, and it shows Lincoln before he grew a beard. (Historians date “beardless” pictures of Lincoln to his life before becoming president, since we know that he grew a beard just after being elected.)

Fassett and her husband, photographer Samuel Montague Fassett, were prominent in the art community of Chicago. According to records of the Grand Army of the Republic, Lincoln posed for Cornelia Fassett in 1860. Her portrait, though, is quite similar to an 1859 photograph taken by her husband. She may have worked from watching Lincoln as he sat for the photograph and from the photograph itself. In 1863 she donated this watercolor portrait to the Northwestern Sanitary Fair held in Chicago’s Bryan Hall. The fair organizers raffled it “for the benefit of the sick and wounded soldiers.” Homefront efforts like the Sanitary Fair raised money not only for supplies, but also provided a much needed activity for women whose sons and husbands were busy in the battlefields.

After the war, Fassett and her husband moved to Washington, D.C., where she painted important portraits of government officials and he served as photographer to the Supervising Architect of the Treasury. At her death, the Washington Post described her as “one of the best known artists and portrait painters in the United States.”

1. Compare this painting to a photograph of Lincoln taken by Cornelia Fassett’s husband. What similarities and differences do you observe?

2. Do the two approaches to making a portrait affect you directly? Why?

For information about the images, please contact Special Collections at the Chicago Public Library (specoll@chipublib.org)