Great Emancipator or Creepy Slob? Historic Portrayals of Abraham Lincoln

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"He has most unwarrantably abused the privilege which all politicians have of being ugly."

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Wikimedia Commons; DreamWorks; Library of Congress

TO THE NAKED EYE, IT MAY APPEAR THAT: The Daniel Day-Lewis vehicle Lincoln, out this weekend, portrays the 16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln the way people viewed him in real life at the time: strong, decisive, and rugged, yet commanding of respect.

BUT ACCORDING TO SOME EXPERTS WHO THOUGHT REALLY HARD ABOUT THIS: The heroic Abraham Lincoln we so fondly remember today is actually more like a composite Lincoln—patched together from some of the more favorable portrayals of him that survived. In his lifetime, President Lincoln was the target of the same kind of mean-spirited partisan snickering that we've come to associate with modern presidential elections, and his image was subjected to some pretty liberal editorializing by artists, writers, and cartoonists.

Though our collective American sentiment today is overwhelmingly positive toward Lincoln, he didn't start out a hero. According to a 1987 Illinois Historical Journal article by Harold Holzer called "Confederate Caricature of Lincoln," portrayals of Lincoln during his presidency, especially by cartoonists, were unforgiving in both the North and the South.

Never before had so much political anger boiled over into political art. But never before had a historical figure seemed better made for pictorial parody. As a contemporary recalled: 'The peculiar characteristics of Mr. Lincoln made him a splendid subject. ... His long arms and legs, his leanness of flesh, his big nose and mouth, and his disheveled hair were distinguishing features for the exaggerations of the cartoonists' who, in turn, 'labored to make him appear ridiculous.' Their artistic legacy was rich and provocative—and, in many cases, genuinely funny.
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Lincoln's unusual appearance—tall and gangly, with distinct and asymmetrical facial features—didn't go ignored by his critics or his constituents. In 1860, the Houston Telegraph wrote that the presidential candidate was "the leanest, lankiest, most ungainly mass of legs, arms, and hatchet face ever strung upon a single frame. He has most unwarrantably abused the privilege which all politicians have of being ugly."

The Southern Confederacy shared some similar thoughts, but in the form of a poem:

His cheek bones were high, and his visage was rough,
Like a middling of bacon—all wrinkled and tough;
His nose was as long and as ugly and big,
As the snout of a half-starved Illinois pig;
He was long in the arms, and long in the arms—
A Longfellow, indeed, save the poetic charms.

In the years leading up to the Civil War, characterizations of Lincoln became even more unflattering. According to Holzer, one of the country's leading Lincoln scholars, an incident on the way to Lincoln's inauguration in Washington gave rise to a sort of meme-ification of the President, casting him as a trembling coward trying to slouch out of the public eye.

Lincoln's nighttime passage through Baltimore, en route to Washington for his inauguration, had genuinely inspired artists North and South. Fearing an assassination attempt, Lincoln's bodyguards had persuaded him to alter his travel schedule, to don an old overcoat, and to exchange his familiar stovepipe hat for a slouch cap for the required brief walk across the Baltimore station platform to change trains. ... When the Illustrated London News published a woodcut adaptation, they substituted a Scotch cap and military cloak, relying on a New York Times report that its author later admitted he had created out of "journalistic imagination." Thus, a pictorial idiom was born. When rival artists heard the tale, they had a field day: Lincoln was portrayed countless times in his 'disguise.' It took years before the motif went out of style; before the vogue had run its course, cowardly Scotch-capped Lincolns had been used cleverly by caricaturists on both sides of the Atlantic.

AND... ANYTHING ELSE? Yup. Abroad, the depictions of Lincoln varied even more wildly than the ones on the home front; in fact, folk versions of President Lincoln vary about as widely between countries as folk versions of Santa Claus.

A 1986 Winterthur Portfolio article called "The European Image of Abraham Lincoln" reveals that because access to current portrait images of Abraham Lincoln was scarce in Europe, some European portrait artists and cartoonists were working with outdated images of the President—some even outdated enough to show him without his famous beard. (He started growing it in 1860 at a little girl's request.)

One famous engraved portrait of Lincoln by an English artist named D.J. Pound is the only known separate-sheet print of Lincoln as president to show him clean shaven, but it nevertheless became one of the most widely viewed images of the President throughout England. "Back in America, around the same time, printmakers were scrambling to superimpose beards on outdated campaign plates and stones to meet the public demand for portrayals of the new leader's new look," write authors Gabor S. Boritt, Mark E. Neely, Jr., and Harold Holzer. "Clearly, neither the news nor the necessary photographic models of Lincoln's altered state had reached England by the time Pound began engraving."

Pound reportedly took a few other artistic liberties, too—by making Lincoln a little sexier. "Lincoln's full lips [were] made to appear a good deal thinner," the authors write. "Pound also softened Lincoln's prominent cheekbones, reduced his jutting brow, made his sunken eyes less darkly mysterious, refined his nose, and removed the mole from his right cheek."

The French, meanwhile, even went so far as to create a Lincoln in their own image.

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In one popular French portrait, "Lincoln's nose was turned slightly downward and he was given a bee-stung mouth as in Morin's wood engraving. Thus purchasers of Metzmacher's engraving saw a somewhat Gallic looking Lincoln." Others depicted Lincoln with a neater, sleeker beard than most other English and American prints; one popular portrait of Lincoln showed him with an "exaggerated pompadour and [a] refined tilt of the head [that] give Lincoln a rather precious look." According to Holzer, Boritt, and Neely, this made Lincoln a little more palatable to the French people; with a few decorative improvements, Lincoln looked like a head of state that the French could appreciate.

As the authors point out, portraits like these "hardly capture the weather-beaten look of a 'rail-splitter, bargee, and country attorney' that enjoyed widespread distribution in America."

AND THUS, WE CAN CONCLUDE THAT: Steven Spielberg's biopic probably shouldn't be considered the definitive portrayal of Abraham Lincoln. But it's a pretty good reminder that where legacies and history are concerned, profound achievements ultimately overshadow little gaffes and petty criticisms.

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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