Norman Rockwell (1894-1978)
Norman Rockwell (1894-1978)

Lincoln the Railsplitter

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978)
Lincoln the Railsplitter
signed 'Norman Rockwell' (lower right)
oil on canvas
84½ x 44½ in. (214.6 x 113 cm.)
Painted in 1965.
Lincoln Savings, Spokane, Washington.
L.N. Moffat, Norman Rockwell: A Definitive Catalogue, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, 1986, p. 444, no. A498, illustrated.

Lot Essay

In 1830 at twenty-one years of age, Abraham Lincoln moved with his family from Indiana to central Illinois. After helping his father Tom build the family homestead, a simple log cabin, Lincoln moved on to settle in the village of New Salem. His first employment there was as a clerk in a dry goods store. When the business failed the following year, Lincoln worked clearing prairie land and building fence rails for farms. While he was good with his hands, Lincoln wanted more challenging work. In 1833, he opened his own general store, but it quickly went out of business. Now deep in debt, he embarked on yet another career on the advice of friends. He became a surveyor for the surrounding Sangamon County. To prepare for this exacting occupation, Lincoln immersed himself for six weeks in Robert Gibson's Theory and Practice of Surveying and Abel Flint's Treatise on Geometry, Trigonometry and Rectangular Surveying. He quickly mastered the texts and began a fruitful career marking boundaries for farms, school sectors, roads and towns.

Carl Sandberg recorded Lincoln's role as a surveyor in his biography of the president, "[Lincoln's] survey became known for care and accuracy and he was called on to settle boundary disputes. In Petersburg, [Illinois] however, he laid one street crooked. Running it straight and regular, it would have put the house of Jemima Elmore and her family into the street. Lincoln knew her to be working a small farm with her children and she was the widow of Private Travice Elmore, honorable in service in Lincoln's company in the Black Hawk War." (Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years, New York, 1926, p. 46) Tales such as this became the folklore of Lincoln and led to his nickname, "Honest Abe."

In 1965, the Lincoln Savings Bank of Spokane, Washington commissioned Norman Rockwell to paint Lincoln the Railsplitter as an advertisement. Undoubtedly, Rockwell was familiar with Sandburg's account of Lincoln as surveyor and most likely he based his now famous literary image of the young Abraham Lincoln from the biography. Lincoln the Railsplitter illustrates Lincoln engrossed in reading a surveying text held in one hand while bearing an ax in the other. There is no mistaking that the scene is a reflection of that moment of transition in the maturity of Lincoln from woodsman to statesman. Rockwell takes great care in completing the composition with well-recognized imagery such as the log cabin to the left. Viewed from below, Lincoln appears larger than life, with the expanse of farmland not yet developed serving as a background to the iconic president.

As America's preeminent illustrator, Norman Rockwell was one of the most successful mass communicators of the century. Painting a sweeping range of topics during a century of extensive technological and social change, Rockwell helped forge a sense of national identity through his art. Rockwell was witness to the height of Impressionism as well as the development of Cubism, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. He traveled to Europe to study the art of Pablo Picasso and he was aware of the move toward Modernism in America by Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, among others. Despite the trends of the day, however, Rockwell chose to pursue a career as an illustrator. Over the course of seven decades, Rockwell produced more than eight hundred magazine covers and ad campaigns for over 150 companies. In doing so, Rockwell became as ubiquitous to the American public as the images he created. "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)

As America moved forward with its twentieth century agenda, it also looked backward, drawing on the past to handle contemporary issues. In doing so, Lincoln became an enduring theme for Rockwell. "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 and M.H. Hennessey, "Norman Rockwell: A New Viewpoint," Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, p. 50)

The scope of Rockwell's appeal is still expanding as new generations live through the same quintessentially American types of experiences that Rockwell so faithfully depicted in his art. "For six decades, through two World Wars, the Great Depression, unprecedented national prosperity and radical social change, Norman Rockwell held up a mirror to America and reflected its identity through the portraits he painted of its people...Rockwell's paintings have done more than just sell magazines. They are in a large measure the visual memory of a nation." (V. Crenson, Norman Rockwell's Portrait of America, New York, 1989, p. 9)

More from American Paintings

View All
View All