Perhaps Clement Conger was right.
The late former White House curator once remarked that a large portrait of a pensive Abraham Lincoln — the one that had presided over the mantel of the State Dining Room since 1937 — might not be the right fit, mood-wise, for a space in which the president was expected to entertain.
“We thought the Lincoln portrait looked rather too brooding for that spot,” Conger said in 1973, according to the White House Historical Association. So, in a bout of redecorating, the portrait was shuffled off and briefly replaced with a landscape that was less of a killjoy.
Lincoln didn’t stay away from the dining room for long, though. The following year, his portrait was returned to its place above the mantel, and it has remained there, lending many White House events an (extra) air of gravitas.
And that is how, several administrations later, the nation’s 16th president came to gaze upon a pile of Big Macs, Quarter Pounders and Filet-O-Fish sandwiches one chilly Washington evening.
President Trump welcomed the Clemson Tigers to the White House for dinner Monday to celebrate their win against Alabama for the college football national championship. Trump had made headlines musing that he would serve the student athletes “McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger Kings with some pizza” — then he made good on that promise.
To the shock of many, including at least one Clemson player, sure enough, the fast-food buffet emerged in the State Dining Room on Monday night.
Much was made of the almost certainly lukewarm burgers and french fries resting under heat lamps. Many online couldn’t get over the disconnect between the candlelit room and the packets of McNugget dipping sauce nestled inside the White House’s fancy silver gravy boats. Late-night comedians had a field day joking about Trump’s penny-pinching. (The president said he paid for the meal on his own because much of the White House catering staff had been furloughed during the government shutdown.)
But for some, all they could focus on was Lincoln.
There he was, the legendary statesman who had guided the United States through the bloody Civil War, now peering at stacks of either 300 hamburgers or “over 1000 hamberders,” depending on whom or when you asked.
It didn’t help that Trump gleefully presided over the spectacle while standing directly beneath Honest Abe.
“I like it all. It’s all good stuff,” Trump declared as a White House staffer finished lighting two majestic candelabras flanking the spread. “Great American food!”
Above him, a great American hunched deep into his chair, chin in hand, pondering life, liberty and the rights of man. If paintings on walls could talk, what might Lincoln even say?
To be fair, the Lincoln portrait had already undergone quite the journey over more than a century.
Its creator, George Peter Alexander Healy, began work on the oil painting in 1869, basing it on a depiction of Lincoln in “The Peacemakers,” which he had just completed the year before. Unlike the portrait, “The Peacemakers” included three other figures — Lincoln with military leaders William T. Sherman, Ulysses S. Grant and David D. Porter — all in the cabin of the Union steamer River Queen.
They are ostensibly relaxing, while also contemplating the possible end of the Civil War, according to the White House Historical Association:
The events leading up to the scene recorded in The Peacemakers are these. Following his march through Georgia, Sherman with his army had turned to the Carolinas and, on March 19, 1865, had taken Goldsboro, North Carolina. Petersburg, the last defense of Richmond, where Gen. Robert E. Lee had gathered his forces, had been under siege by Grant’s army for nine months. The end of the Civil War was at last imaginable.
Weeks later, the Confederacy fell.
“Thank God I have lived to see this,” Lincoln reportedly told Porter. “It seems to me that I have been dreaming a horrid dream for four years, and now the nightmare is gone.”
Suffice to say, if Lincoln appears to be “brooding” in “The Peacemakers,” there is good reason for it. And Healy’s subsequent portrait of Lincoln, completed in 1869, would recapture that same weighty expression, albeit this time on the face of a president sitting alone (and in a more ornate chair).
As the White House Historical Association notes, as president, Grant rejected Healy’s portrait of Lincoln and displayed another one in the White House. Lincoln’s eldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln, would later purchase and cherish Healy’s painting.
“I have never seen a portrait of my father which is to be compared with it in any way,” he stated.
It wasn’t until 1939, seven decades after its completion, that the portrait would return to the White House — this time with the promise that it would be “given an appropriate place.” It’s unclear how or when exactly Healy’s painting wound up in the State Dining Room, but with a few exceptions, Lincoln has stayed there through the decades.
Since then, the Lincoln portrait has been a constant through multiple renovations and countless state dinners, Christmas receptions and meetings of administration officials. And on a recent Monday night, Lincoln remained in his familiar perch, observing yet another turning point in U.S. history.
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