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The most common face in America, redefined

Posted By Marisa Martin On 02/13/2013 @ 10:24 pm In Diversions,Front Page,Reviews,U.S. | No Comments

Lincoln has one of those faces only an admiring world could love.

Sadly prescient and deeply sunk eyes perceived the nation’s troubles. Lincoln’s fabulously contorted brow seems to settle into a ledge over a falcon’s nose. His roughly hewn, lopsided features could as well been cut with the axe he felled trees with, and his whole appearance was just odd – never helpful when running for high office.

In 1860 the Houston Telegraph claimed, “He has most unwarrantably abused the privilege which all politicians have of being ugly,” amongst a cluster of attacks on Lincoln’s appearance across the country.

Nasty and petty remarks on his appearance and social background foreshadowed the types of verbiage the Republican Party (which he substantially founded) continues to receive hourly.

But this unlikely visage launched 3,224,000 soldiers into battle and freed millions from slavery. In America Lincoln is the most universally recognized face of an actual person, and after 148 years his image is legion. Only Jesus has inspired more works of art here. Lincoln was also passionately spiritual and outspoken on his faith, which grew substantially while he was in office.

No one knows how many depictions of the Great Emancipator grace the world. You can only wonder where he found time to sit for so many official portraits.

Fortunately for us, photography was in its infancy but strong enough to glean us shots of the gangly president going about his business. These include types of the new found art including Daguerreotype, tintype, glass and salted paper prints. Extant photographs of Lincoln have doubled to more than 130, thanks to recent discoveries lurking in the depths of the Library of Congress.

Preserved with the nation’s paper treasure is also an obscure collection of sheet music related to Lincoln. A Library of Congress presentation titled “We’ll Sing to Abe Our Song!”: Sheet Music about Lincoln, Emancipation, and the Civil War” includes more than 200 pieces of popular sheet music from a private donor along with other gems such as poetry, for those who are historically inclined.

Of course there are always the Lincoln pennies – something like 500 billion since 1909, making the 16th president a common sight for us all. We virtually carry the memory of the man in our pockets.

"Lincoln" oil painting by Tommervik

Lincoln’s immortalization in the arts shows no sign of slowing. Interest has only gained momentum as evidenced by the popularity of Steven Spielberg’s award-winning 2012 film “Lincoln”and scores of books and articles over the last few years.

Things Lincolnesque still fascinate visual artists, evidenced by new portraits and tributes of various types across the globe. Popular young painter Tommervik did a delightful series on Lincoln in his inimitable style – a simplified pop cubism with his own twists. Tommervik managed to whittle down Lincoln as if capturing only his essence – no easy task on a face so extreme in its variance and asymmetry to begin with.

American poet Walt Whitman noted Lincoln’s popularity with artists and gave his opinion of the results. “Of technical beauty [Lincoln] had nothing… but to the eye of a great artist it furnished a rare study, a feast and fascination. The current portraits are all failures … most of them caricatures.”

"Lincoln" by Ryan Kelly, a.k.a. Funrama

Illustrator, painter and comic artist Terry Ryan (a.k.a. Funrama) does a pretty good job with a pen and ink drawing he did in about an hour. He catches the craggy, weather-beaten roughness most artists (especially contemporaries) ignored. Perhaps they felt signs of outdoor damage were beneath a president, even the one known as the “rail-splitter.”

Another facet of Lincoln’s character that clearly shows in his face is the accelerated aging of the man while in office. It’s common knowledge that the weight of governing this nation ages any president visibly in even 4 years, with few exceptions. Lincoln seemed to almost mummify after a few years. The effect was cadaverous and solemn, his skin sunken to the bone, disguising his good humor. Ironically, shortly after a “life cast” was made (1865) to aid in sculpting, an almost identical death mask was necessary.

"Lincoln" collage by Muriel McDonald 2012

Digital artists are coming up with all types of interesting things, starting with old photographs. Muriel McDonald’s historical portrait of Abraham Lincoln uses multiple images in a patriotic collage. The sepia tint in the background and effects of fading and patchwork are like an old rag quilt, something Lincoln would have used as a child. She inserts a bit of old script (the Gettysburg Address?) and American flag among other symbols of the Civil War and times.

A foreign admirer of Lincoln, backed by the entire Chinese government, made an artistic effort to honor Lincoln a few years back. Yet the sad story of Chinese artist Yuan Xikun has become a tale of a good gift gone wrong. Yuan’s massive, 8.3-foot, 800-pound statue of Lincoln was graciously donated to the city of Philadelphia in 2009. His monumental gift hunkered around unloved and uninstalled until it was sent for auction and sold for (get this) $500, the starting bid.

Why the cold shoulder from the City of Love?

Yuan’s “The Day Before the Decisive Battle” was alien to Americans’ concept and understanding of both Lincoln and our Civil War. The president leans almost contemptuously with his foot on the symbolic enemy, gazing out in victorious grandeur. We know Abe to be humble and emotionally devastated by the responsibility of war. This is an imposter – even his body is bulkier and more suited to a traditional warrior than Lincoln’s impossibly long, stick-pin limbs.

Let’s not forget artist Grace Divine (that’s not a typo) and her sculptured bust of Lincoln. Divine’s work is “clay beautifully hand painted to look like bronze” with extra claims of being similar to Rodin and an inspired “channeled work.”

Photos of the piece are partially eclipsed by the attractive blonde draped across it looking up at us with a sultry look. This all begins to make sense with the revelation of the price tag – $1,500,000.

Honest Abe’s personal secretary and press manger John Nicolay felt no photograph or painting at that time had yet captured the true, inner character of Lincoln.

“There are many pictures of Lincoln; there is no portrait of him,” he claimed.

With a man as complex and culturally loaded as Abraham Lincoln, there will never be an absolutely “definitive” painting. Meanwhile the challenge is still out there for any artist to take up, even today.


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