The Lincoln Family

Object Number: 
ca. 1865
Oil on canvas
Overall (unframed): 27 x 36 3/4 in. (68.6 x 93.3 cm) Overall (framed): 27 x 44 3/8 in. (68.6 x 112.7 cm)
Gallery Label: 
Soon after the assassination of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, John Chester Buttre (1821-1893), a prominent New York engraver, commissioned this portrait of the Lincoln family from the New York portraitist Francis Carpenter, requesting that it be painted in black and white in order to facilitate an engraved print from it, which was published in 1867. Carpenter was a logical choice for the commission since he had spent six months at the White House in 1864 to paint what is considered to be his best known work, a group portrait commemorating the president's first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation before his cabinet, an event that had taken place in 1862. Warmly welcomed by the family during his residency, Carpenter accompanied Lincoln on long walks around Washington and was occasionally privy to quiet moments the president spent with his wife and children. It was just such a moment that Carpenter sought to capture in this portrait of how the entire family would have appeared in 1861, the year Lincoln assumed the presidency and prior to the death from a sudden illness in 1862 of his twelve-year-old son, William Wallace, the "idolized child of the household," according to his mother. The portrait depicts the Lincoln family grouped around a dinning table in what is intended to show a private room in the presidential residence. Carpenter is known to have made several sketches of the Lincolns' White House furnishings during his residency. William Wallace ("Willie") occupies the center of the composition seated in front of the table and holding what appears to be a military sword. To the right sits President Lincoln reading from a book, while his youngest son, Thomas ("Tad"), at eight years old, looks on. Opposite them sits Mary Lincoln with chin resting on hand listening attentively. Standing behind the table is Robert, the eldest of the Lincoln children and the only one to reach adulthood; he eventually became a lawyer and later served as secretary of war under U.S. presidents James Garfield and Chester Arthur. During much of the period his parents lived at the White House he was away at college, later law school, at Harvard. To create what is essentially a simulated, composite portrait of the Lincolns, Carpenter drew upon several photographs of individual family members, most of which he received from Mary Lincoln. Prior to commencing the portrait, Carpenter had asked Mrs. Lincoln to sit for a photograph from which he could work, but she declined, claiming her extreme nervous state so soon after the assassination. Wanting to be helpful, she instead provided him with several of photographs of herself and her favorites of the boys, from which Carpenter closely borrowed in composing her likeness in the portrait as well as those of William Wallace and Robert. For his depiction of Lincoln, Carpenter relied upon a photograph of the president with his son Tad, taken in February 1864 by Anthony Berger from the Washington D.C. studio of famed photographer Matthew Brady. Carpenter had been present at the sitting and is credited for coming up with the pose of father and son, hence the inclusion of the image in the painted portrait, but reversed. Thirty years after completing The Lincoln Family, Carpenter outlined his intentions for the portrait in a letter dated April 25, 1895, noting that "It was painted in black and white, with the expressed purpose of facilitating the engraving. When that [the engraving] was completed, I fully intended to finish the painting by adding color to the flesh as well as to the draperies. I never considered it finished any farther than as model for the engraving."
Holzer, Harold and The New-York Historical Society. "The Civil War in 50 Objects." New York: Viking, 2013.
Credit Line: 
Gift of Warren C. Crane
Due to ongoing research, information about this object is subject to change.
Creative: Tronvig Group