As America approached its Bicentennial celebration and moved forward with its twentieth century agenda, the country also looked backward, drawing on the past to inform responses to contemporary issues. In keeping with this idea of historical reflection, Abraham Lincoln became an enduring theme for Norman Rockwell, America’s preeminent illustrator of the twentieth century. Lincoln’s accomplishments in unifying the country during its most trying era represented progress and morality, and Rockwell chose this subject once again for the cover of an early Bicentennial issue of The Chicago Tribune Magazine, which led to the completion of Mathew Brady Photographing Lincoln. "In remembering history, Americans discovered patterns and systems that could not be reoriented to serve current purposes. Rockwell's pictures played a role in shaping this sense of the past...Rockwell also found subjects in America's colonial past that demonstrate Yankee common sense and integrity. In some images, such as his many renditions of Abraham Lincoln, Rockwell sought the ideal or the heroic." (J.L. Larson, M.H. Hennessey, "Norman Rockwell: A New Viewpoint," Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, New York, 1999, p. 50)
Mathew Brady Photographing Lincoln depicts President Abraham Lincoln as a distinguished statesman, elegantly dressed, with his characteristic top hat resting on the table at his side, while being photographed by Mathew Brady. Brady was one of the first American photographers, and he used this new medium to document the Civil War on the battlefields as well as take portraits of politicians of the era, including 18 presidents. Brady photographed Lincoln many times and his likenesses have been used to illustrate the President in his most widely distributed images, including on the five-dollar bill and penny.
Rockwell had in his possession as a reference image an illustration of a February 23, 1861 photograph of Lincoln taken by Brady (negative, 1975, Norman Rockwell Art Collection Trust, Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Massachusetts). In this reference photograph, Lincoln is seated in the same pose as Rockwell depicted in the present work, and it also includes the side table with Lincoln’s hat and quill in identical positions. The difference in Brady’s photograph and Rockwell’s painting of Lincoln is the head brace that Rockwell included in the present work to support the President’s head. In photography’s early stages, protracted photographic exposure time required long poses of the sitter. Rockwell may have chosen to add this brace to impart realism to this historic scene capturing the early photographic process between a significant photographer and legendary president, because using this bracing device was a common, practical technique to help sitters remain still. It is likely that an artist on Brady’s staff altered the photograph to remove the device, as retouches to his photographs were common. Rockwell’s reference image also included a handwritten note to use the curtains depicted in another photograph of Lincoln, which are seen in the upper left corner of the present work. Just as Brady staged his photographic portraits with curtains and columns to project a background of stateliness, Rockwell employs the same tactics in the present work. Throughout the scene of Mathew Brady Photographing Lincoln, the complimentary pairing of reds and greens unifies the composition in vibrant contrast. Rockwell’s hallmark attention to detail is evident from the framed portraits on the walls in gilded frames to the pocket watch on which Brady attentively keeps his eye.
Mathew Brady Photographing Lincoln was started by Rockwell as a personal project, demonstrating his admiration for Lincoln as a subject, and was completed several years later when The Chicago Tribune Magazine began a series of artwork celebrating the upcoming Bicentennial and chose to feature the present work on the cover. Alan G. Artner wrote in this issue of the magazine on the present work, “Rockwell’s subject is generally the common man, tho [sic] he has been no stranger to prominent statesmen. Some years ago he began the painting reproduced on today’s cover, in which Abraham Lincoln is seen posing for a photograph by Mathew Brady. The work was not intended as one of Rockwell’s famous illustrations; it was a personal project. Thus, when other commitments intervened, it was left unfinished. When asked to contribute to this collection, Rockwell again set to work… it is a twilight piece filled with his usual period accuracy—notice the neck brace for long photographic exposures—but none of the old bubble-bursting irony. It is typical, however, in that Rockwell takes us behind the scenes, capturing less a President beset by affairs of state than just another American at the mercy of early photography. With this humanizing impulse—vintage Rockwell—we can easily identify.” (The Chicago Tribune Magazine, September 7, 1975, Section 9, p. 19)
In the charcoal study (by 1961, Private Collection) for the Mathew Brady Photographing Lincoln, an African American janitor was depicted at right, which Rockwell replaced with the Classical bust sculpture in the final painting. Jennifer A. Greenhill writes of this composition, “Although he created a number of civil rights works in the 1960s that can appear unwaveringly forthright, images like Mathew Brady Photographing Lincoln, painted just three years before his death, leave little doubt about the tensions and compromises that informed his view on the black experience. After trying to evoke Lincoln’s contribution to closing the gap between black and white through the figure of a young black janitor positioned at the far right, Rockwell finally abandoned as unsatisfactory the formula he had tried out in a charcoal drawing. In the signed oil painting the figure is replaced by a Greco-Roman bust perched authoritatively atop a pedestal, an acknowledgment of the country’s ancient model for nation building.” (“The View from Outside: Rockwell and Race in 1950,” American Art: Smithsonian American Art Museum, vol. 21, no. 2, Summer 2007, p. 72)
Mathew Brady Photographing Lincoln demonstrates hallmarks found in Rockwell's best works and underscores the national ideals that the artist found so appealing. "His images convey our human shortcomings as well as our national ideals of freedom, democracy, equality, tolerance and common decency in ways that nobody could understand. He has become an American institution. Steven Spielberg recently said, 'Aside from being an astonishingly good storyteller, Rockwell spoke volumes about a certain kind of American morality.' It is a morality based on popular values and patriotism, a morality that yearns above all for goodness to trump evil." (L.N. Moffatt, "The People's Painter," Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, New York, 1999, p. 26)