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Monday, December 1, 2008

Must See: Abraham Lincoln at The National Portrait Gallery

By the Queen of Free

The Kate Guenther and Siewchin Yong Sommer Gallery housing the new Abraham Lincoln exhibit of photographs, prints, and a wood engraving of the Emancipation Proclamation at the National Portrait Gallery has the ambience of a funeral parlor: The lighting is low, and the mood, somber and subdued among the many visitors who were young, old, of many nationalities and interests when I dropped by. (Several Capitols hockey fans identified by their big red jerseys stopped in on their way to a game.)

The gallery is not large, and the etchings and lithographs of Lincoln big and small are well worth a trip. That the artifacts are all owned by the Smithsonian Institution is astonishing.

Photography came of age during Lincoln’s tenure, and he willingly obliged many requests to be recorded on film, glory be.

In one of the last prints made before his assassination April 14, 1865, Lincoln is labeled a “messiah.” Tad, his son whom Lincoln spoiled especially after the death of his beloved son, Willie, is shown with his father in another “last one” dated February 5, 1865. One photo shows Lincoln with Frederick Douglass, the first African-American to visit the White House.

The exhibit continues the perpetuation of the negative depictions of Mary Todd Lincoln in photographs and words. (With all the many omnipresent evil descriptions of her, it is easy to compare her to Eve and taking another step, blame Lincoln’s downfall on her, but I imagine that's already been done. Is there anything positive about her? He married her.)

An accompanying description for another print says Lincoln was hesitant to speak much publicly, aware of the importance citizens placed on his words.

Why the name of the exhibit “One Life: The Mask of Lincoln”? Yes, there are two masks made of his face, one before the war (1860), and the other after (1865), which visitors may see close up, and which clearly demonstrate the effects of war on a president, but the title suggests a dark environment which Abraham Lincoln's legacy contradicts. Ask Barack Obama.

Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Ball was held March 4, 1865 in the very same building of the "Mask" exhibit (oh, what a lovely hall for an upcoming ball) and another exhibit on the second floor about his inauguration make a fitting tribute to the president we hear more about daily as the momentum for the celebration of his bicentenary birth on February 12, 2009 builds.

Except for Christmas Day the National Portrait Gallery is open daily from 11:30 a.m. until 6:50 p.m. when the guards begin throwing visitors out quickly. It is located across from the Verizon Center at the corner of 8th and F streets, N.W.

While at the exhibit cell phone users may dial a number to receive more explanation including the reason behind Lincoln growing a beard. Many of the images and labels are available online at the Portrait Gallery's web site.

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