The present lot is a landmark in the history of photography and among the most impressive examples of early documentary photography. Captured with remarkable clarity are the swelling crowds of thousands gathered to witness the inauguration. Lincoln would have stood with other officials under the wooden portico erected for safety. The abstraction of scaffolding visible in the upper portion of the image testifies to the stalled construction of the cast-iron dome of the Capitol building. The stripes of the American Flag are faintly visible, suggesting breezy conditions during the long exposure.
As is the case with many photographs of Lincoln, definitive authorship of the present image remains a long debated and fascinating question. While this image is recorded in Lloyd Ostendorf’s encyclopedic Lincoln in Photographs, he does not posit as to the identity of its maker. A handful of artists, including Winslow Homer, witnessed Lincoln’s inauguration, as did at least three photographers. A contemporary newspaper account stated, ‘A small camera was directly in front of Mr. Lincoln, another at a distance of a hundred yards, and a third of huge dimensions on his right, raised on a platform built specially for the purpose’ (quoted in Ostendorf, p. 86). Among those present, however, it is likely that only Alexander Gardner had the technical and aesthetic mastery to create this sophisticated image and bravura large salt print.
In the late 1850s and early 1860s, Gardner ran the operations of Mathew Brady’s Washington studio. Gardner had photographed Lincoln as President-elect in February 1861, and it is known that both Brady and Gardner were present during Lincoln’s first and second inaugurations. No other single photographer captured Lincoln’s likeness as many times as Gardner, and the photographer’s documentation of Lincoln provides an invaluable character study of one of our most important presidents at a pivotal juncture in this country’s history.
An impressive engraving based on this photograph first illustrated the 16 March 1861 issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, there credited to ‘[George] Stacy’ (pp. 264-5). Upon Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, however, that etching was no longer attributed to Stacy when it was reproduced in Frank Leslie’s Pictorial Life of Abraham Lincoln (p. 5). A 1962 government publication commemorating the centennial of Lincoln’s first inauguration credits the basis for the illustration to a photograph by Alexander Gardner (Ceremonies and Re-enactment of the One Hundredth Anniversary of the First Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, 1861-1961, xxiv). Most recently, this image was again credited to Gardner in the exhibition ‘Dark Fields of the Republic: Alexander Gardner Photographs, 1859-1872’ at the National Portrait Gallery (September 2015-March 2016).
Extant prints of this historic image are scarce. At the time of this writing, it is believed that no other early print of this image has been offered at auction. A salt print in the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, is from an album of Washington views assembled by Benjamin Brown French, Chief Marshal of the 1861 inaugural parade. A period albumen print is also believed to be in the collection of the Smithsonian Museum of American History, Division of Political History. A gelatin silver print (likely early 20th Century) resides in the Jack Smith Lincoln Graphics Collection at the Indiana Historical Society. The location of the photograph cited in Ostendorf is unknown, although features of the present print closely mirror details visible in that illustration.
Sotheby’s wishes to thank for their assistance in researching this photograph: Frank Goodyear, Director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art; David Ward, Senior Historian at the National Portrait Gallery; and William Stapp, former Curator of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery.
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