Who Wore It Better? The Presidential Look

John Chester Buttre (American, 1821–1893). John Charles Frémont, ca. 1859. Engraving. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs, LC-DIG-pga-00431
Lincoln Beardless_crop
John Chester Buttre (American, 1821–1893). Abraham Lincoln, Second state. 1860. Engraving. Gift of Mr. Grosvenor Hyde Backus, Class of 1894, AC 1947.139

These two mid-nineteenth-century engravings look very similar. Abraham Lincoln, the beloved sixteenth president, and John C. Frémont, the first Republican presidential candidate, who later became senator from California, stand in identical poses, left hands on their hips and right hands resting on a document on the table beside them. They are shown wearing the same jacket, trousers, and shoes, in what seems to be the very same room, with identical furnishings. Even the same books lean against the chair’s leg.

Both prints are the work of John Chester Buttre, a well-known publisher and engraver based in New York. Buttre recycled the plate he had used for Frémont’s portrait to produce Lincoln’s when Lincoln received the Republican Party’s endorsement in May 1860. The most significant alteration, of course, is the replacement of Frémont’s head with Lincoln’s, evidence of which is seen in the lighter region that surrounds Lincoln’s head like a halo. Other minor details are changed as well: the large world globe that stands on the table in Frémont’s portrait, recalling his life as an explorer before he entered politics, is replaced by a small lamp in Lincoln’s, and Lincoln’s smaller tie, revealing more of his collar, replaces the larger cravat around Frémont’s neck. Interestingly, the photographer Matthew Brady, in his photograph of Lincoln from February 1860 that likely served as the model for this engraving, enlarged Lincoln’s collar to make his neck appear less scrawny. Lincoln is reported to have said that “Brady and the Cooper Institute [where he delivered his famous Cooper Union address] made me president.”

Lincoln’s portrait underwent another interesting metamorphosis in the printer’s studio. There’s a third, nearly identical print — also by Buttre and in the Mead’s collection — in which Lincoln is portrayed wearing a beard. Lincoln did in fact grow a beard, inspired — at least partly — by the words of an eleven-year-old girl named Grace Bedell, who, in the fall of 1860, wrote him a letter saying not only would his thin face be improved with a beard, but that “[a]ll the ladies like whiskers.” When he returned to Grace’s town in February of 1861, Lincoln bore his now-iconic beard.

Lincoln With Beard_crop
John Chester Buttre (American, 1821–1893). Abraham Lincoln. Third State. 1860–1861. Engraving. Gift of Herbert L. Pratt, Jr., AC 1945.490

Written by Rosemary Frehe, Class of 2017, and Fawzi Itani, Class of 2018


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