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The Power of the Portrait

When this painting of Abraham Lincoln was first exhibited, it stunned viewers, including Mary Todd Lincoln, who allegedly fainted at its sight and had to be helped away. One longtime Lincoln associate said Willem Frederik Karel Travers’ 1865 work was the most realistic portrait he had ever seen of the 16th president, who had been killed eleven years earlier.

This astonishing 9-foot tall portrait had been hiding in plain sight in of all places, a municipal building in the Borough of Madison, New Jersey for nearly eighty years. Now, it has been restored and returned on loan to celebrate President’s Day at The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Restoration included the need to remove an extremely thick, opaque and yellow layer of hardware varnish that was poured on it.

Even though photography was already usurping the role of the portrait painter, this incredible painting demonstrates the power of painted portraiture.

Here are 10 interesting facts to know:

  1. Ten million viewers saw it at the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia, America’s first world’s fair.

  2. The painting is displayed near Gilbert Stuart Lansdowne’s portrait of George Washington, one of the most famous paintings in America.

  3. After the 1876 exhibition, the Lincoln painting was nearly burned, according to historian Stefan Schöberlein. Franklin Webster, the American ambassador to Germany who had first purchased the painting, had died, and his descendants considered burning it.

  4. In the 1920s, the Rockefellers became the painting’s owners. Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge placed it in the municipal building in Madison, New Jersey.

  5. The composition includes a bust of George Washington, the famous painting of him crossing the Delaware, and the Constitution.

  6. The globe in the background is positioned on Haiti, to signify that Lincoln was the first to recognize it as an independent nation in 1862.

  7. There is a black glove on the floor which could symbolize mourning.

  8. It must have been completed between the passage of the 13th Amendment on January 31, 1865, and Lincoln's assassination on April 15, 1865, minus the two weeks Lincoln went to Richmond immediately after the besieged city fell that spring.

  9. Historians believe the work was painted from life, however, there is no proof because of spotty White House visitor records from the time.

  10. The painting will be on display for an extended period at The National Gallery in Washington, D.C. now until December 31, 2027.

“Abraham Lincoln” (1865) by W.F.K. Travers in the "America's Presidents" gallery at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, on loan from the Hartley Dodge Foundation. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

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