Friday, February 6, 2009

Exhibit Review - One Life: The Mask Of Lincoln - National Portrait Gallery


The Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery is currently holding a special exhibition of Abraham Lincoln portraits now through July 5, 2009. Titled "One Life: The Mask Of Lincoln" the exhibit depicts for the visitor the changing face of Lincoln as he served as our 16th president. It is part of the "Lincoln At The Smithsonian" series.

I had the pleasure of viewing the exhibit this past week during my "Lincoln Weekend" in Washington, D.C. A friend of mine had told me just how special this exhibit is and I'm happy to say she was correct.

The centerpiece of this exhibit is the photo I show at the top of this posting, the famous "cracked plate" photo of Lincoln taken just two months before his death, in February 1865. No, this is NOT the last photo of Lincoln as so many people still believe. But this is probably the most famous photo of Lincoln and is quite possibly one of the most famous in American history. Even after the deaths of 600,000 men in the Civil War, and the deaths of two of his four children, Lincoln was able to bring himself to have the slightest smile in this photo, as he realized that the horror of war was nearly over. The crack in the original negative adds poignancy to this photo of Lincoln. The print on exhibit is an original albumen silver print from 1865. Click here for more information plus an MP3 discussion about it.

The true last portrait known of Lincoln is also on display in the exhibit. Lincoln was apparently not pleased by the "surprise" photo as his face shows a little bit of anger. Recent research has shown that this photo was taken on March 6, 1865, at least a few weeks after the "cracked plate" photo.

My personal favorite Lincoln image is represented in the exhibit. This is the famous "Gettysburg" portrait in which Lincoln is staring directly at the camera. Taken only 11 days prior to the Gettysburg Address, it shows Lincoln as resolute, determined, and almost handsome.

All in all, there are roughly 40 images of Lincoln on display in this exhibit, all of them rare and priceless. The viewer can see ambrotype, stereo cards, cartes-de-visites, and prints of captivating images of Mr. Lincoln. No photography was permitted in the exhibit. But the link I provided in the opening paragraph contains every image of Lincoln on display along with a description.

Strangely, the National Portrait Gallery has chosen to not publish a companion book for this wonderful exhibit. It's a pity, because such a book could explain the images in-depth and in context for the enthusiast. Yes, books have been published in the past which contain every known pose of Lincoln, but this exhibit is so unique and special that a companion book should have been done. I know I would have purchased one.

The exhibit is fairly small, but incredibly well done. It was special being able to see original prints and plates of these famous Lincoln images. It is not to be missed.

My rating: 5.0 out of 5.0 Log Cabins



4 comments:

Abigail said...

I did not expect how touching the exhibit would be. Having such a deep connection to him the Gettysburg photo hit me hard. There is one inaccuracy there, they stated that no one has any idea why he grew a beard. Now come on we have a darn good idea why he did. It's ok to elude to his love of childhood innocence.

davidcarnesward said...

Dear Abigail:
I'm the curator of the Mask of Lincoln. Actually, I didnt say "we don't know why AL grew a beard." In the audio guide I mention the anecdote of Grace Bedell and go on to suggest also that Lincoln grew a beard because he was going to war -- putting peace behind him with a new look; breaking with the past as AL frequently did.
Thanks much for your kind and positive comments though. Glad you liked the exhibit.
David C. Ward

Geoff Elliott said...

Thank you, Abigail, for your comment. This exhibit is indeed touching and so very moving. I can't tell you how thoroughly I enjoyed it.

I didn't notice the comment about Lincoln's beard. All I've ever read is how Grace Bedell wrote to Lincoln about his face and how he began growing the beard soon after.

Geoff Elliott said...

Dear Mr. Ward:

I'm honored that you would read The Abraham Lincoln Blog, especially since I am not an historian or educator.

Your exhibit is incredible. I cannot tell you how moved I was to see original prints of these famous Lincoln portraits.

My comment about a lack of a companion book was not intended as criticism, by the way. Just a desire for a memento of such a wonderful exhibit.

Thank you for taking time to read and to comment.

 
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