- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 23, 2002

On Feb. 28, 1878, a crowd of dignitaries gathered in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol for a ceremony that had been anticipated for many months. The occasion was the acceptance by the federal government of a famous gift a renowned painting of President Abraham Lincoln and his Cabinet, executed by New York portraitist Francis B. Carpenter.
When the drapery was removed and the crowd saw the painting, titled "The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation," there was a round of applause for Carpenter and the scene he had depicted. It would become the artist's most famous work.
Carpenter was born in 1830 on a farm near the town of Homer in upstate New York. As a boy, he showed an interest in art, sketching pastoral scenes on blank pages of old account books.
Carpenter was only 16 when he set up an artist's studio. His first commission, for $10, was to illustrate a book on sheep raising. The author was so pleased with the result that he requested a portrait of himself. The favorable reception of these early works gave Carpenter such confidence that, in 1851, he set out to ply his trade in New York City.
He had been there less than a year when he was commissioned to paint Millard Fillmore, then president of the United States. His career took off.
Carpenter was opposed to slavery. When the Civil War broke out, he strongly supported the Union cause. He was delighted when, nearly two years later, Lincoln issued the long-awaited Emancipation Proclamation.
The artist felt a tremendous urge to depict on canvas something related to the Emancipation Proclamation. What other act so encapsulated the war's noble purpose? But Carpenter had no contacts in the Lincoln White House, and he badly needed a sponsor. One possibility was Owen Lovejoy, a congressman from Illinois who was a friend of Lincoln.
Carpenter wrote Lovejoy in early January 1864, explaining his intention. Lovejoy provided the introduction that Carpenter needed, and the painter took a train to Washington on Feb. 4, 1864.
A White House reception on his first Saturday in the capital gave Carpenter an opportunity to meet the president:
"From the threshold of the 'crimson' parlor as I passed, I had a glimpse of the gaunt figure of Mr. Lincoln in the distance, haggard looking, dressed in black, relieved only by the prescribed white gloves; standing, it seemed to me, solitary and alone, though surrounded by the crowd, bending low now and then in the process of hand-shaking, and responding half abstractedly to the well-meant greetings."
Carpenter worked his way up to the president, who received a whispered word from one of his secretaries about Carpenter's project. Later that evening, the president received Carpenter in his office. After reading the letter from Lovejoy, he turned to the artist and remarked, "Well, Mr. Carpenter, we will turn you loose here, and try to give you a good chance to work out your idea."
Carpenter moved his gear into the White House, and during the next six months he was allowed not only to paint but also to observe Lincoln and his often fractious associates at work. When one visitor, intent upon a private conversation with the president, called attention to Carpenter, Lincoln dismissed his presence with a jest, "You need not mind him; he is but a painter."
Carpenter had arrived in Washington a supporter of the Lincoln administration. Now, as he observed the president firsthand, he became an awestruck admirer. He was fascinated by Lincoln's handling of the unending requests for pardons, some of which strained the president's well-known compassion.
One woman petitioned on behalf of her son, who had been serving in the Confederate army. Hearing that his mother was ill, the soldier had visited her in the North, only to be captured. The mother now promised that her son, if released, would take the oath of allegiance to the United States and have nothing more to do with the Rebels she gave the president her word.
"Your word," repeated Lincoln, dryly. "Your son came home from fighting against his country; he was sick; you secreted him, nursed him up, and when cured, started him off again to help destroy some more of our boys."
Lincoln reflected for a moment but then reached for a piece of paper and wrote on it. He handed it to her with the remark, "I just want you to understand that I have done this just to get rid of you."
During the campaign for Richmond in 1864, Carpenter asked the president how he rated Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in comparison with other Union commanders. Lincoln replied, "The great thing about Grant, I take it, is his perfect coolness and persistency of purpose. I judge he is not easily excited, which is a great element in an officer, and he has the grit of a bulldog. Once let him get his teeth in, and nothing can shake him off."
One day, Gov. Andrew Curtin of Pennsylvania, together with a constituent, paid the president a visit. Their business completed, Lincoln invited them into the East Room to watch Carpenter at work. Sitting on the edge of a long table, legs dangling, the president ruminated about the origins of the Emancipation Proclamation:
"You see, Curtin, I was brought to the conclusion that there was no dodging this Negro question any longer. We had reached a point where it seemed that we must avail ourselves of this element, or in all probability go under."
Carpenter reveled in his access to the White House. Although he could produce a routine portrait in a few days, he managed to spin out his work on the Emancipation Proclamation for half a year.
By July, however, the work was complete. One afternoon, as Lincoln was preparing for a carriage ride, Carpenter asked whether the president had time to view the completed picture. The two walked into the East Room, and the president gazed at himself and his closest associates on a canvas that measured 9 by 15 feet. In Carpenter's words, Lincoln characterized the painting as being as good as it could be, the representation of himself and his colleagues "absolutely perfect."
When Carpenter returned to his studio in New York, he was a busy man. His White House commission assured him of a stream of paying clients for more traditional portraits. His painting of the Emancipation Proclamation remained on view in the East Room for several months, after which it was sent to Carpenter's studio. After Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, the painting was exhibited in several major cities.
For all his idealism, Carpenter was alert to the commercial possibilities of his painting. In 1866, he authorized a copy by engraver Alexander Hay Ritchie, from a miniature painting executed by Carpenter himself. The printer who handled the engravings later recalled that he ran off nearly 30,000 impressions. Within a few years, the Ritchie print was to be found in homes across the North.
Carpenter was still not done with Lincoln. His stay in Washington produced not only a famous painting but a memoir, "Six Months at the White House With Abraham Lincoln."
The book went through 16 editions and must have turned a nice profit for its author.
The artist is the sole source for many Lincoln anecdotes, including the president's response to a clergyman who expressed the hope that the Lord was on "our side." Lincoln, in reply, expressed the hope that the nation "should be on the Lord's side."
Only Carpenter mentions Lincoln's reported wish that every Wall Street gold speculator should have "his devilish head shot off." Several stories related to Lincoln's reading habits he once told Carpenter that he had never read a novel to the end are found only in Carpenter's memoir.
In 1878, Carpenter sold "The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation" to a wealthy collector, Elizabeth Thompson, who presented it to the U.S. government.
When the painting was unveiled, there were some subtle changes the result of the artist having "touched it up." Secretary of State William Henry Seward no longer was depicted as prominently as the president.
The pen that for years had lain near Seward's hand was now held by Lincoln. A lightening of the background behind the president lent a haloed effect. The draft of the Emancipation Proclamation rested in Lincoln's hand rather than in front of Seward.
The Ritchie engraving, however, appears in many books dealing with the Civil War. Both versions, despite a certain stodginess, retain their dramatic appeal to this day.
Reporter Noah Brooks, a friend of both Lincoln and Carpenter, called Carpenter's painting, which today hangs in the U.S. Capitol, one "which will be prized in every liberty-loving household as a work of art, a group of faithful likenesses of the President and his Cabinet, and as a perpetual remembrance of the noblest event in American history."

John M. Taylor lives in McLean. He is the author of several books dealing with the Civil War period, including "William Henry Seward: Lincoln's Right Hand."

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