Editors' pick

One Life: The Mask of Lincoln

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One Life: The Mask of Lincoln photo
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Editorial Review

Lincoln, Unexposed
Despite Many Photographs, Much of the Man Remains Hidden From View

By David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 8, 2008

It's a safe bet that Abraham Lincoln is the most recognizable American of all time. Every child in this country can name him by first grade, and so can countless millions who will never set foot in the United States. His face adorns the indivisible penny (which is the best argument for retaining that beleaguered coin). He's more American than George Washington, at least when it comes to his image.

A big part of the reason is photography. Lincoln was the first president whose entire political career transpired in the era when light could be magically captured and held forever.

Next year marks the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth. Across the country there will be countless exhibits about him. Every museum with Lincolniana, however trivial, will put it on view. It may turn out, though, that the best is the first -- a spectacular, one-room show at the National Portrait Gallery called "The Mask of Lincoln."

The exhibit has 31 objects, nearly all of them photographs. They encompass a range of techniques (ambrotype, and platinum, albumen silver and salted paper prints) and sizes, from large postage stamp to large window. It has Lincoln's two life masks -- the pre-beard one of 1860 with a relaxed, up-gazing face, and one from five years later in which he looks like a biblical patriarch, lips pursed in persistence and exhaustion. There are a few images rendered by the hand of artists -- a miniature oval watercolor on ivory, an etched cartoon, two ink-and-wash drawings.

Lincoln did not shrink from the camera. There's evidence he realized that photographs were a way of keeping his face -- homely though he thought he was -- in front of the people. But in his pictures he hides as much as he reveals, believes David C. Ward, the historian who curated the show.

"I think Lincoln remains, despite all the words that have been written about him, essentially mysterious."

All but a few of the best-known photographs are here. (Missing is the first verified one, a beardless, slicked-hair, large-eared Lincoln of 1846 or 1847.) The earliest is from 1857, the last from March 6, 1865, five weeks before his assassination.

The range of his appearance is remarkable.

In the oldest picture, he has the tousled hair of a young poet, a Keats or a Sandburg. In a brooch-size ambrotype of 1860 his forehead is as broad and empty as a stretch of prairie. There's another from that year that shows him standing between a table and a pillar with his left hand on a book. It's a pose that evokes some of Washington's portraits. Taken the morning of the day he gave his famous Cooper Union address, it's been called the "picture that made Lincoln president" -- and one sees why.

There's the famous Alexander Gardner picture of 1863 in which he stares straight at the camera with a shocking directness that is also entirely opaque -- marble made flesh.

There's the one 1864 from Mathew Brady's Washington studio that provided the image for the penny. There's a diptych, probably from 1865, in which the Great Emancipator's hair is in a spiky, punk-style cut he may have gotten to make removing the plaster of his life mask less painful. In his last picture, from an unscheduled sitting he was roped into by his son Tad, he actually looks cross.

But the picture that is worth all the others is the "cracked-plate" portrait by Gardner, taken on Feb. 5, 1865.

To my eyes, this is one of the four or five greatest and most moving photographs ever taken of a human being. How much of its power is from the image, and how much from the knowledge we bring to it, is hard to say.

There are some misconceptions about the picture. First, what you see is a print on paper, not a glass plate. The glass plate is long gone. Second, Gardner didn't drop the plate. If he had, it would be in a thousand pieces. Almost certainly what he did was twist it slightly by mistake, breaking it in two along a single crack. He put the pieces together and made a print. Whether he made more than one nobody knows. But only one exists.

The crack (which is rendered so crisply that it appears to be an indentation in the paper) both records and predicts. It symbolizes the broken country that Lincoln restored to unity but whose wound he couldn't erase. It portends the violent, veering trajectory of the bullet that would kill him.

But the crack is only part of the story.

Lincoln's face is careworn, his expression one of seemingly infinite patience. Some think he has a Mona Lisa smile. He is seated off-center and the light-sepia background is blank. The pose is intermediate between a conventional portrait and a half-body view.

Furthermore, Gardner's camera catches only Lincoln's lips, beard and part of his nose in focus. The far shoulder is a featureless blur. His ear -- oversize, attentive -- is indistinct. Even his left eye, which is as deep and complex as the vortex that took the Pequod down, isn't quite sharp.

The impression is of Lincoln receding from present tasks into history.

When Ward looks at the picture, he thinks of an image from the last page of another American novel, not "Moby-Dick" but "The Great Gatsby."

"Lincoln is moving out across 'the dark fields of the republic.' We are always trying to seek him. And yet he is elusive to us."

This photograph is an American treasure. Like Thomas Jefferson's first draft of the Declaration of Independence (which recently went off view at the Library of Congress), it's delicate and needs long rests. It's not out of the drawer much.

"The Mask of Lincoln" will be up through July 5, 2009, but the original print of Gardner's photograph will be on display only through Lincoln's birthday, Feb. 12. (After that, a replica.)

Go see it and be thankful for many things.