True American Elegance

04 Apr 2024 10:05 AM | Therese Orr (Administrator)
This article originally appeared in the pages of the Gettysburg Times, March of 2024. It was penned by Wendy Allen of the Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania, in the hopes of sharing the work the Fellowship does.

I suspect there are few adults in the world today who don’t know what the current United States presidential candidates look like. That was not always the case. Just prior to the Republican National Convention in mid-May 1860, there were many Americans who did not know what candidate Abraham Lincoln looked like, but he was rumored to be quite unattractive. Reports of his ugliness proliferated. The Houston Telegraph stated that he was “the leanest, lankiest, most ungainly mass of legs, arms and hatchet face ever strung upon a single frame.”
When Lincoln’s nomination was announced on the third ballot in Chicago, streams of hand-colored wood engravings of Lincoln were scattered throughout the convention hall like confetti. For many, this was the first time they had seen his image. Soon, there was an instant desire from the public to see more pictures of Lincoln, and printmakers were eager to meet their demands. They were also now filling the need for carte-de-visite photographs, which debuted in America in 1860.What became of all those prints and photographs? Well, of course, surviving prints are in museums and private collections. Here is a fun story that sheds some light on one special private collection.
In the 1920s, a group of young American artists took up residence in Paris. Among them were Ernest Hemingway, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and the then-famous society couple Gerald and Sara Murphy. Calvin Tomkins, an art critic for the New Yorker magazine, recounted a story that Gerald had told him. One day, the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso invited the couple to his apartment. Over drinks, he gave Gerald and Sara a tour, showing them room after room, each crowded with half-finished masterpieces. Then Picasso "led Gerald rather ceremoniously to an alcove that contained a tall cardboard box.” Murphy recalled, “It was full of illustrations, photographs, engravings, and reproductions clipped from newspapers.” Every one of the images was of the same person — Abraham Lincoln. “I’ve been collecting them since I was a child,” Picasso told Gerald. “I have thousands—thousands!”
From the box, Picasso retrieved a portrait of Lincoln taken by the photographer Mathew Brady. Murphy remembered “the great feeling” with which the artist declared, “Voilà la vraie élégance américaine!” (“This is true American elegance.”)
Did anyone in Lincoln’s time consider him handsome? We need to look no further than to the good people here in Gettysburg. In 1863, when Lincoln appeared on the steps of the Wills House on York Street, thirteen-year-old William H. Tipton, a photographer's apprentice, was among the crowd of spectators. He recalled, “In my eagerness to see and hear the President, whom I regarded as much above all other men, and second only to the Almighty, I centered all my attention on Mr. Lincoln, and no word or movement of his escaped my notice. I had heard that Mr. Lincoln was the homeliest man in the country. But when my eyes beheld that sad but kindly countenance, those strong rugged features seemed handsome to me."
It seemed that way to Picasso, and it seems that way to me too.

Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania is a 501(c)3 Organization
P. O. Box 3372, Gettysburg, PA  17325


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