One portrait, many visions of 'Honest Abe' on display

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Norwich - posted Wed., May. 11, 2011
A row of Lincoln portraits lines the wall of the Norwich Arts Center gallery. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
A row of Lincoln portraits lines the wall of the Norwich Arts Center gallery. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

His face is familiar to every American, and in theory, each painting of President Abraham Lincoln was intended to be a copy of one single work. But arrayed in a group, the images create a fascinating study in individual artistic style.

Nearly 30 entries in the Lincoln Portrait Project are currently on exhibit in the Norwich Arts Center gallery on Broadway. The gallery is a stone’s throw from City Hall, the former home of the painting the entries were intended to replicate.

In total, 62 painters answered the call for submissions to the project, intended to provide a replacement for the original John Denison Crocker portrait which once hung in City Hall and was stolen in 1994. Jurors Leslie Lillien Levy, a painter, and art dealer Jeff Cooley selected Christopher Zhang’s entry as the winning portrait. Zhang received an $8,000 purchase award from the city through the Sachem Fund, and his entry will replace the lost Lincoln in its frame, at least until such time as the original is recovered.

Slater Museum director Vivian Zoe, who coordinated the Lincoln Portrait Project, said that the jurors were charged with choosing the nearest exact replica of the original, based on a photo of the art work. The lost painting had layers of old varnish and had been exposed to years of cigar smoke at City Hall, giving it a yellowish cast. "The painting, in my opinion, had never been treated since it had been moved to City Hall," she said.

In addition, "the only existing image we had was a snapshot taken at a somewhat acute angle," Zoe said. "We Photoshopped it into square."

Visitors to the gallery can’t help but choose their favorites – the show encourages comparison – and the selections may say as much about one’s own vision of Lincoln’s personality as the artist’s visions. A slight tilt to the chin, a slightly more brisk brushstroke, a slightly softer background add the artists’ interpretations to the elements of the original, seen at the gallery in a much smaller photo reproduction.

In one painting, Lincoln seems to glance almost archly at the viewer; in others, he gazes with seeming sympathy. One of the paintings appears to be more a copy of Lincoln’s visage from the $5 bill than of the original portrait. In yet another, he has the haggard look of a man who has already been through the grueling Civil War and knows he’s going to be shot.

The yellowish cast of the original is reflected in some pieces, but other painters opt for a warmer, reddish undertone, one that might have represented the painting's original tonal field prior to its aging process.

The background details from the original are treated with interesting variances of care, too. Some painters are far more concerned with replicating the decorative architectural molding behind the president than others; some include the book and inkwell on the table next to him, others do not. Even the candle is sometimes lit, sometimes not. And Lincoln’s hands – the bane of many a portraitist – are painted with a wide range of skill levels and attention, sometimes with a deftness that rivals the face and sometimes with lackluster results.

Each of the paintings is available for sale by the artist, and the gallery provides contact information for the exhibited pieces. Those entries that didn’t make the cut for the NAC show were marched formally to other locations in downtown Norwich in a whimsical “Procession of the Orphans,” led by NAC Board President Peter Leibert, playing “Battle Hymn of the Republic” on the concertina.

The Lincoln Portrait Project remains on view through May 28 at the NAC Gallery. Hours are Wednesday through Saturday, noon-4 p.m. Additional entries from the contest are on exhibit at the former Woolworth’s, the Norwich Chamber of Commerce, at 223 Main St. and the Norwich Community Development Corporation.

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