Looking for Lincoln

It is a face handsome and homely, sorrowful and mirthful, penetrating and opaque. Amid the contradictions stamped into a half trillion pennies is one truth: Abraham Lincoln’s face is unforgettable. But it is a visage that we, 150 years after his death, will never truly know. Lincoln’s personal secretary, John G. Nicolay, described “the long gamut of expression from grave to gay, and back again from the rollicking jollity of laughter to that serious, far-away look that with prophetic intuitions beheld the awful panorama of war, and heard the cry of oppression and suffering.” Perhaps this is why, Nicolay wrote: “There are many pictures of Lincoln; there is no portrait of him.”


Lincoln the politician understood the power of a portrait. As this gallery shows, he sat for many during the last years of his life.

ca 1846 Born in poverty and “raised to farm work,” Lincoln the rough-hewn rail-splitter had, by age 37, become a prosperous lawyer in Springfield, Illinois. This daguerrotype, made shortly after he was elected to the U.S. Congress, is his earliest confirmed portrait.

Nicholas H. Shepherd; Library of Congress

1860 The first portrait of Lincoln by famed photographer Mathew Brady become the basis of widely disseminated campaign posters. Less than nine months after this portrait was made, Lincoln was elected to the White House.

Library of Congress

1858 At age 49, Lincoln the lawyer argued and won his most celebrated criminal case.

Abraham M. Byers; Art Archive/Culver Pictures/Art Resource, NY

1859 Mary Lincoln’s favorite portrait of her husband

Samuel M. Fassett; Library of Congress

1860 The last known portrait of a beardless Lincoln

Preston Butler; Library of Congress

1860 During the presidential campaign, an 11-year-old supporter urged candidate Lincoln to grow a beard, “for your face is so thin.” He heeded the girl’s advice, as seen in this photograph made almost three weeks after his election.

Samuel G. Alschuler; Library of Congress

1863 This photograph sold at auction in 2009 for $62,500.

Alexander Gardner; Library of Congress

1864 A careworn Lincoln after 34 months as president

Mathew Brady; Getty Images

1865 Early in 1865 Lincoln had his hair trimmed to keep it out of the plaster used to make his second and final life mask.

Lewis E. Walker; Library of Congress

1865 “With the fearful strain that is on me night and day,” said Lincoln, “if I did not laugh, I should die.” Humor offered the president a brief respite from the pressures of his embattled administration. The heavy toll of those years is apparent in this portrait made less than three months before his fateful visit to Ford’s Theatre.

Alexander Gardner; Library of Congress