Lincoln images reconsidered

No event of the 19th century aroused as much enthusiasm, controversy and culture change as the presidential proclamation issued on January 1, 1863. Writers and artists of the day immediately and instinctively understood that Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation changed everything, first and forever. It is easy to understand why the 16th president said, just before signing the official Emancipation Proclamation on New Year’s Day, “If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act.”

For reasons that observers then and historians since have only guessed at, Lincoln chose that day to construct his most important order in legalistic language that boasted, in scholar Richard Hofstad­ter’s famously damning words, “all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading.” Often overlooked is the fact that Lincoln more than made up for the dry and prosaic wording of his proclamation with soaring poetry that reverberated through the crowd gathered at Gettysburg 10 months later for the consecration of a national cemetery dedicated to those who had given their lives so the “nation might live.”

All this, I hope, provides a fitting preamble to this issue’s column—which I thought should pay tribute to the (happily) unfinished work not of Lincoln, exactly, but of a special Lincoln admirer and Gettysburg citi­zen. She labors mightily, and beautifully, to remind modern Americans that the Great Emancipator more than earned the greatness his contemporaries ascribed to him from 1863 on, and more than deserves to be remembered in the medium in which artists of his own day first honored him: with paintings.

I have known artist Wendy Allen for a long time. She was living and working in Connecticut when I first met her, but fortunately several of her exhibitions were on display at Gettysburg College. It was there that I first viewed her nuanced, earnest, subtle and magical evocations of Lincoln, the likes of which I had not yet seen from contemporary painters. They were not illustrations, by any means, but understated impressions of Lincoln dreams and realities—a brushstroke here, some unfinished white space there, that brought moments in time to full life and deeper understanding.

I am now lucky enough to possess two of Wendy’s masterpieces (that is, two creations of several parts each). One is a diptych showing the Lincoln of 1858, slashes of light blue and brown spread over two separate canvases that somehow reveal more of the up-and-coming man than any more belabored, overwrought pictures of the day or since. Not long after hanging it, I again visited Gettys­burg College and came face to face with another of Wendy’s masterworks: a 12-panel creation re-interpreting the Lincoln of his 1860 Cooper Union Address. Here the soon-to-be president emerged solid and overpowering, his hand resting majestically on a pile of books (just as Mathew Brady posed him that February 27 morning to suggest his subject boasted wisdom and learning). Only in this case, one of the books was labeled: “Holzer. Lincoln at Cooper Union,” my own 2005 volume on the speech—the most exhilarating shout-out I’ve ever experienced. How could I not obtain that painting as well?

That said, be assured that if I could only afford her exquisite print adaptations, I would make certain to add them to my collection. I don’t know quite how she does what she does—I’ve never actually seen her working with brush in hand—but her fabulous mystery grows stronger every year. It is not just what she says on canvas, figurative work or abstract, but also what she withholds from us. She gives us not only image but space through time—space to ponder and add our own thoughts. Her economy dazzles me. I’ve always been more a fan of understated singers such as Tony Bennett rather than belters like Kid Rock. Well, Wendy is the Tony Bennett of Lincoln painters. She is the Peggy Lee, the Billie Holiday—her whispers, like theirs, far more powerful than visual tantrums—and those who know me know that I have no higher compliment to bestow.

In this, the year of the Emancipation Proclama­tion’s 150th anniversary, I see in Wendy’s Lincolns all the public determination and private uncertainty that marked its author. And I advise anyone looking for a fresh, provocative, haunting view of Lincoln to check out her oeuvre. Just Google her “Lincoln Into Art” website or visit her gallery on Baltimore Street in Gettysburg, where she relocated a few years ago in search of the wider audience she deserves.

So why mention all this now—a few months after emancipation’s 150th and a few months before the Gettysburg Address’ sesquicentennial? Because at the 2012 celebration of the Gettysburg Address at the Soldiers’ Cemetery, where I was privileged to introduce Steven Spielberg as the annual Dedi­cation Day speaker, event organizers honored the filmmaker with a gift they believed crystallized their own undiminished fascination with Lincoln, and their willingness to turn to fresh interpretations as iconic representations of their own reverence.

They gave Spielberg a Wendy Allen portrait.

Historian Harold Holzer is chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation.

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