The Mask of Lincoln

Lincoln by Alexander Gardner

For the 2009 bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, the NPG will have a Lincoln tribute on display from November 7, 2008 to July 5, 2009 in the "One Life" gallery. "The Mask of Lincoln" is being curated by NPG historian David C. Ward and he discussed the show recently.

Q. What will separate this show from all of the other Lincoln shows coming up in the bicentennial year?

DW. We have an excellent collection of all the best Lincoln portraits. We have thirty-one images, mostly photos, one painting, and four or five drawings. They span Lincoln’s life from the beardless youth to the Alexander Gardner cracked-plate image, which was broken in production. That’s a particularly great image:  he is wearing that Mona Lisa-like smile because he knows the war is coming to an end. This show will tell Lincoln ’s story of the Civil War; I wanted to deal with slavery and emancipation because the war went from a war to save the Union to a war to end slavery.

Q. What is the most important part of this show?

DW. The photographs. Lincoln was the first president to come of age in the photographic era and he quickly grasped how to use the medium of photography in order to project himself as a national leader. The nineteenth century is filled with artists who are trying to narrow the distance between the person and the likeness; photography did just that. In the industrial-era philosophy, the fact that photography was mechanical meant that it was more accurate because it did not produce an image from the shaky hand of the artist or the engraver’s tool.

Q. Lincoln will be everywhere next year. How big is he in history?

There are more biographies on Abraham Lincoln than there are on anyone else except Napoleon Bonaparte.