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By Harold Holzer
Feb. 9, 2018 12:16 p.m. ET

One of the most beloved and influential photographs of Abraham Lincoln nearly went unseen by the public.

Like the photos that inspired his likenesses on the copper penny and the $5 bill—taken the very same day—the pose of the 16th president and his youngest son, Tad, gazing at a large, implicitly inspiring book, now ranks among the greatest and most recognizable of Lincoln images, a symbol of his gentle parenting and love of learning. But the story of how it came to be made, and why it was originally suppressed, remains largely unknown.

Lincoln was three days shy of his 55th birthday when he strolled from the White House to Mathew Brady’s nearby studio for the Feb. 9, 1864, sitting. Brady himself was away supervising battlefront coverage. Filling in was gallery manager Anthony Berger, who took six Lincoln portraits that afternoon, among them one full-length, three seated, and the close-up profile destined to adorn the one-cent coin. Most became famous quickly: Brady’s reproduced them by the thousands.

Yet Lincoln had posed there only four weeks earlier, and the resulting pictures were already on sale. So what made his Feb. 9 return so urgent and the yield so spectacular? Both answers lie with artist Francis B. Carpenter. He had just begun painting a canvas depicting Lincoln reading the draft Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet. Though granted wide access, Carpenter found his subject elusive. He suggested new photographs as supplementary models.

On Feb. 9, Carpenter accompanied Lincoln and Tad to Brady’s. And judging from the stellar results, he posed his subjects there himself. Therein lies the crucial difference between these and the unremarkable portraits produced at earlier Lincoln sittings: They were arranged by an artist.

Yet alone among the icons created that day, the extraordinary father-and-son portrait did not immediately reach the public. Hoping to burnish Lincoln’s private as well as public image, Carpenter wanted first to use it as the model for a second painting. “The President never looked grander in my sight,” the artist quoted a White House visitor, “than…with a book open before him” and “little Tad beside him.” The pose Carpenter staged at Brady’s re-created this description.

Lincoln sits in profile in a throne-like chair, a large, brass-clasped book open on his lap. That it was an oversized sample album of Brady pictures did not matter; with a little retouching it would look generic. (For his part, “Honest Abe” worried to journalist Noah Brooks that the prop might be mistaken for a Bible and the pose regarded as “a species of false pretense.”)

Lincoln wears his wire-rimmed spectacles, just as he might to read a printed volume. The usually rambunctious Tad leans over him, seemingly transfixed by the book. (Plagued with learning disabilities, as Brooks testified, Tad ironically “abhorred…books and study.”) Dressed in a black suit with a gold watch chain, the boy looks like a miniature version of the president, a reverential son emulating a doting parent. Contrived or not, no more touchingly informal portrait had ever been taken before of an American leader.

Surely its commercial potential was immediately understood. The president intended to run that year for a second term. Such a sympathetic portrait might soften his prevailing reputation. Here was anything but the Lincoln his critics viewed as a tyrant.

Yet Carpenter apparently convinced Brady’s that this pose was his alone, although the crude little painting he ultimately created from it was never exhibited. (It is now in the White House collection.) At least Lincoln received his own copies of the photo, which he charmingly inscribed: “A. Lincoln & Son.” Only after the president’s assassination in April 1865, with customers clamoring for fresh images of their martyred leader, did Brady finally release the image publicly. On May 6, a woodcut copy appeared on the cover of Harper’s Weekly. It created a sensation.

Brady promptly mass-produced it, and judging from the countless surviving copies (and piracies), it proved wildly popular. Engravers and lithographers adapted it for display prints, sometimes superimposing Lincoln’s wife and older sons. The evocative titles on such prints confirm their suggestive power: “President Lincoln and Family Circle,” “Lincoln at Home,” “Abraham Lincoln as a Father,” and in one case, as deceptively as its subject once feared, “President Lincoln Reading the Bible to His Son Tad.” A century later, the still-evocative original reappeared on a postage stamp commemorating “A Nation of Readers.”

Just as Lincoln never earned the image amelioration the picture might have generated during an election year, Carpenter never earned the recognition he deserved for devising it. Once published in Harper’s, it became fair game for all image-makers. By the time the methodical Carpenter got around to producing a Lincoln Family canvas of his own, the president had been dead two years and the market for such groupings glutted. His new painting earned Carpenter only $500 (half his usual price), not the acclaim he merited for inspiring one of the most ubiquitous and influential of Lincoln images—and surely the most endearing.

—Mr. Holzer, director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy
Institute at Hunter College, is the Lincoln Prize-winning author of many books on Civil War-era art, photography and iconography.

Appeared in the February 10, 2018, print edition.

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