As she works on the painting, art conservator Tamara Luzeckyj’s eye is drawn to the anguished face in the middle of the canvas.
It’s the tiny face of a woman, tightly framed by a bonnet. The eyes are dabs of black paint; the mouth, a smudge of pink; the expression, one of horror. It’s the only face in the dark, chaotic work that’s looking directly at the observer.
“Haunting,” Luzeckyj says as she sits before Carl Bersch’s 1865 painting of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, “Lincoln Borne by Loving Hands.”
The face is one of many images now emerging more clearly from decades of old paint, dirt and varnish as the National Park Service has the portrait of the mortally wounded Lincoln cleaned and restored for the first time in 35 years.
The piece, which depicts Lincoln being carried out of Ford’s Theatre in Washington after being shot by John Wilkes Booth, is thought to be the only image of the assassination painted by an eyewitness, according to Laura Anderson, a National Park Service museum curator.
Dim and ghostly, it captures the moment word of the assassination reaches the crowd on the street, and a moment of celebration becomes one of disbelief.
The painting, in oil on canvas, has been in family hands and in storage for much of its existence — perhaps because the scene it depicted was too painful, some believe.
It belonged to the White House for a time, but it’s not clear whether it was ever displayed.
Since 1978, it has been in the hands of the Park Service, and lately it has been in storage in the service’s Museum Resource Center in suburban Maryland. It was last exhibited four years ago in Russia, at shows comparing the lives of Lincoln and Czar Alexander II, who was also assassinated, the Park Service said.
The conservation is being done at the studio of Olin Conservation in Great Falls, Va.
The painting, unlike many images of the assassination and its aftermath, captures Lincoln as he is borne across 10th Street NW to the boarding house where he died.
The scene is illuminated by gas light, torch light and the light from the theater entrances.
As the bearers ease Lincoln over the curb of the street, his face is framed by what appears to be white cloth or a pillow. His head is bandaged. His eyes are closed. There is a smear of blood on the bandage.
Newly emerged in the foreground is the figure of a moustached policeman wearing a badge, who seems to be pulling the fold of a flag aside and gesturing to bring Lincoln across the street.
Disembodied faces and hands have come out more clearly. A couple in the background seem to be embracing.
The American flag, illuminated by a gas light at the center of the painting, seemed to be stationary. But the cleaning shows that it is probably being carried by a reveler, who remains obscured in the murk.
Then there is the woman’s face, which Luzeckyj said reminds her of Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream.”
“I’m always drawn to this face,” she said last week while sitting before the painting in a white lab coat and cleaning the surface with a sterile cotton swab.
On the canvas, “Everybody’s doing stuff,” she said. “But she’s looking right at you and looks like she’s got her mouth open. There’s something about that that’s disturbing.”
“She’s like right in the middle, looking at you, the viewer, like, ‘Oh, my God.’ Mouth open. Horror,” she said. “Out of the corner of my eye I always catch her face. She looks just in shock. She’s standing still, and everything else is chaos around her. And there she is.”
David L. Olin, chief conservator, said, “I think we’re seeing stuff that we haven’t seen in generations.”
There are multiple layers of grime, varnish and paint, he said. He plans to remove them, as well as two extra layers of canvas on the back of the painting that could reveal artist notations on the original.
“That would be cool,” Olin said, “to see if there’s any description that the artist may himself have put on there.”
In an interview in his studio Thursday, he said he and his conservators have been working on the painting since August and should be finished by January.
“It’s still in a state of cleaning,” Olin said, indicating brighter and darker areas of the canvas. There are areas of damage, perhaps caused by water, where repair paint was once applied. Once the cleaning is finished, new paint will be meticulously applied “dot-by-dot” where needed, he said.
Anderson, of the Park Service, said the painting eventually will be exhibited in the Ford’s Theatre complex.
Bersch, a 30-year-old German immigrant artist, was on the balcony of his apartment across the street from the theater sketching the nighttime scenes of jubilation marking the end of the Civil War, when Lincoln was shot April 14, 1865.
Bersch, who had come to the United States in 1860, was about to become the Abraham Zapruder of the Lincoln assassination. Zapruder was the Dallas businessman who captured the assassination of John F. Kennedy on his home movie camera in 1963.
“All Washington was celebrating, delirious with joy,” Bersch wrote to his family later, according to historian W. Emerson Reck’s account of Lincoln’s last hours.
“Houses were lighted up and hung with bunting,” Bersch wrote. “Parades marched through the streets, waving flags.”
Bersch had been out about an hour, when the street suddenly went quiet and a shout came from a window of the theater: “ ‘President Lincoln has been shot; clear the street!’ ”
He watched as the crowd erupted from the theater, followed by doctors and soldiers carrying the stricken president.
“Out of the north door of the theater appeared a group of men, carrying the prostrate form,” Bersch wrote. “I recognized the . . . President by the flickering light of the torches, and one large gas lamp post on the sidewalk.”
“They stopped a few moments at the curb, hastily debating where to take [him] . . . to give him the best attention most quickly,” he wrote.
“The tarrying at the curb and the slow, careful manner in which he was carried across the street, gave me ample time to make an accurate sketch,” which he would turn into the painting, Bersch wrote.
Bersch probably produced the painting in 1865, Anderson, of the Park Service, said. But it’s not clear where he painted it, perhaps in his apartment across from the theater.
It stayed in his family until 1932, when his daughter, Carrie L. Fischer of Annapolis, lent it to the old Lincoln Museum in Ford’s Theatre, according to the Park Service and a news report at the time.
By most accounts, Bersch died in Baltimore in 1914.
The painting was later willed to the White House by Bersch’s granddaughter, Gerda Vey, and transferred to the Park Service, according to Reck, the historian.
Olin noted that Bersch did not make Lincoln the focus of the painting.
“The focal point is the entire image centered on the flag,” he said. “I think he’s recorded more than just Lincoln’s death. He’s recording the state of the nation at the time.”