“Abraham Lincoln,” a well-known and highly recognizable portrait of the 16th president, hangs in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, DC. The oil-on-canvas painting was completed in 1869 by well-known American painter George Peter Alexander Healy. Lincoln’s pose was taken from Healy’s depiction of him in an 1868 portrait entitled “The Peacemakers,” which shows Lincoln in negotiation with fellow Union high command including Ulysses S. Grant and William Sherman. This work is not the official portrait of Lincoln, but was acquired by the White House in 1939 .
“The Peacemakers” shows Lincoln aboard the Union steamer ship “River Queen,” leaning forward, listening intently to General Sherman. Completed in 1868, almost three years after the conclusion of the Civil War and the assassination of President Lincoln, this work was based on sketches of Lincoln that Healy took in August 1864. During this time, Lincoln was fighting for re-election, which he eventually won in November 1864, carrying all but three states. In both of Healy’s works, the president appears tired, but seems to be pondering deeply, his left hand poised on the arm of chair, as if he is ready to spring to action. Based on the political climate of the United States at the time of the original sketches, it would seem that Healy did his best to mirror the public perception of Lincoln as a weary warrior for unity in his portrayal .
In 1869, a Congressional act commissioned an official portrait of Lincoln to hang in the White House. Healy submitted his 1869 work of solo Lincoln, but President Ulysses S. Grant selected a work by William F. Cogswell instead. Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, purchased the portrait by Healy, insisting that he had never seen “a portrait…which is to be compared to it in any way” . The portrait was left to the White House by his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, upon her death. It was accepted and hung in the State Dining Room on March 22, 1939 .The position of this portrait of Lincoln in the State Dining Room of the White House implies a great deal about its importance. The State Dining Room, which now seats up to 140 guests, is the larger of the two dining rooms. It is the gathering place of diplomats, foreign leaders, and many of the most influential individuals from domestic regions and abroad. This space serves as the “banquet hall and ceremonial chamber,” and is considered to be the “center of White House hospitality” . By hanging his portrait above the mantle in this room, it is ensured that all who gather for dinners, luncheons, meetings, and parties in this space will encounter Healy’s work and the well-established memory associated with the legacy of Lincoln.
His image becomes usable in this manner by drawing on his international legacy; the way he is remembered around the world. Transnational memory of Lincoln, specifically referenced by the International Workingmen’s Association, focuses on his Great Emancipator persona, rather than his humble roots or military strategy. In a letter sent to the White House following Lincoln’s re-election in 1864, Karl Marx and other members of the Association, referencing the president’s Emancipation Proclamation, felt that his official stand against slavery set a precedent that would change international politics in and around the working class. These nearly sixty representatives from Germany, France, Switzerland, Poland, and Italy praised Lincoln for his leadership of “his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race,” and task him with “the reconstruction of a social world“ .
There are currently two memorials to Lincoln in Mexico and three in the United Kingdom, suggesting that his legacy as an iconic figure who represents and personifies ideals such as justice and equality lives on in modern international memory. His likeness has been re-created by artists from all over the world, perhaps most famously by Spanish artist Salvador Dali in 1976. Based on this knowledge of his transnational commemoration as a warrior for the underserved and enslaved, Lincoln’s portrait in the State Dining Room serves as a reminder to international (and domestic) guests of his legacy as a just leader, wise strategist, and advocate for all.
Situated above the elaborately carved white mantle, Lincoln stares intently down at guests from below a carved inscription of a prayer written by President John Adams. The words read, “I pray to heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house and on all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof” . By associating Lincoln with this prayer, it is clear that he is being lauded as one of these “honest and wise men” who has governed the country. His childhood nickname, “Honest Abe,” pulls this connection even further into the cultural vernacular, making it recognizable as a useable site of memory.
Healy’s work hung in this place of honor and glory above the mantle in the State Dining Room for the entirety of the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson presidencies. President Richard Nixon removed it at some point during his term, replacing it with a landscape by Jasper Francis Cropsey entitled “Under the Palisades, in October” . Based on politics at the time, it seems odd that Nixon chose to remove Lincoln from this space. In his inaugural address in 1969, he remarked that “the greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker” . It is ironic, then, that he chose to remove a symbolic portrait of arguably the nation’s most prolific and successful “peacemaker,” replacing it with a landscape of the Hudson River.
Additionally, Nixon’s later actions regarding integration and desegregation, including the Philadelphia Plan (1970) and support for the Equal Rights Amendment, mirrored the views of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, making his seemingly symbolic removal of Healy’s work even more strange . Perhaps there is no real reason, but the Cropsey painting was replaced shortly after the resignation of Nixon and inauguration of President Gerald Ford in 1974, restoring Healy’s portrait of an intensely pensive Lincoln to its previous place of honor in the State Dining Room . It remains here, and can be seen in modern photographs of assemblies held in this space.In this particular pose, Lincoln seems to almost be leaning into the conversation at hand (as seen in the photo above), a visual reminder to domestic and foreign leaders of his legacy as a hero for the good, just, and true. By associating modern American international politics, much of which, officially and unofficially, take place in this very room, with the memory of Lincoln as a peacemaker and champion for freedom, his memory becomes usable to U.S. leaders. Tying the current administration to the partial memory of Lincoln in this way evokes a sense of trust in the nation that Lincoln built and its ability to carry out the ideals which he championed.
1. “Abraham Lincoln.” The White House Collection. The White House Historical Society, n.d. Web. 13 April 2015.
2. “Address of the International Workingmen’s Association…” The International Workingmen’s Association. n.p., n.d. Web. 14 April 2015.
3. “Biography of Richard Nixon.” Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. n.p., n.d. Web. 16 April 2015.
4. Cogswell, William F. Abraham Lincoln. 1869. White House Collection, Washington, D.C. Web. 14 April 2015.
5. “Inaugural Address.” Richard Nixon. The American Presidency Project, n.d. Web. 13 April 2015.
6. “‘Lincoln Portrait’ Back In Its Place.” Sarasota Herald Tribune 12 September 1974: 31D. Web.
7. “The Peacemakers.” The White House Collection. The White House Historical Society, n.d. Web. 13 April 2015.
8. Reinhold, Dorothy. “Celebration! 200 Years at Pennsylvania Avenue.” Observer Reporter [Washington, PA] 12 July 1992: F-6. Web.
9. “State Dining Room.” White House Tour. The White House Historical Society, n.d. Web. 14 April 2015.
10. “State Dining Room.” The White House Museum. n.p., n.d. Web. 13 April 2015.
11. “White House gets Lincoln portrait…” Harris and Ewing Collection. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 14 April 2015.