Six Months at the White House/IV
To paint a picture which should commemorate this new epoch in the history of Liberty, was a dream which took form and shape in my mind towards the close of the year 1863,--the year made memorable in its dawn by the issue of the final decree. With little experience to adapt me for the execution of such a work, there had nevertheless come to me at times glowing conceptions of the true purpose and character of Art, and an intense desire to do something expressive of appreciation of the great issues involved in the war. The painters of old had delighted in representations of the birth from the ocean of Venus, the goddess of love. Ninety years ago upon this Western continent had been witnessed--no dream of fable, but a substantial fact--the immaculate conception of Constitutional Liberty; and at length through great travail its consummation had been reached. The long-prayed-for year of jubilee had come; the bonds of the oppressed were loosed; the prison doors were opened. "Behold," said a voice, "how a Man may be exalted to a dignity and glory almost divine, and give freedom to a race. Surely Art should unite with Eloquence and Poetry to celebrate such a theme."
I conceived of that band of men, upon whom the eyes of the world centred as never before upon ministers of state, gathered in council, depressed, perhaps disheartened at the vain efforts of many months to restore the supremacy of the government. I saw, in thought, the head of the nation bowed down with his weight of care and responsibility, solemnly announcing, as he unfolded the prepared draft of the Proclamation, that the time for the inauguration of this policy had arrived; I endeavored to imagine the conflicting emotions of satisfaction, doubt, and distrust with which such an announcement would be received by men of the varied characteristics of the assembled councillors.
For several weeks the design of the picture was slowly maturing, during which time, however, no line was drawn upon paper or canvas. Late one evening, absorbed in thought upon the subject, I took up an unframed photograph lying carelessly in my room, and upon the blank side of this, roughly and hastily sketched, was embodied the central idea of the composition as it had shaped itself in my mind.
To one disposed to look for coincidences in daily life, and regard its events as no mere succession of accidents, there must often come those which wear a deep significance. In seeking a point of unity or action for the picture, I was impressed with the conviction that important modifications followed the reading of the Proclamation at the suggestion of the secretary of State, and I determined upon such an incident as the moment of time to be represented. I was subsequently surprised and gratified when Mr. Lincoln himself, reciting the history of the Proclamation to me, dwelt particularly upon rhe fact that not only was the time of its issue decided by Secretary Seward's advice, but that one of the most important words in the document was added through his strenuous representations.
The central thought or the picture once decided upon and embodied, the rest naturally followed; one after another the seven figures surrounding the President dropped into their places. Those supposed to have held the purpose of the Proclamation as their long conviction, were placed prominently in the foreground in attitudes which indicated their support of the measure; the others were represented in varying moods of discussion or silent deliberation.
A few evenings after the completion of the design I went to see a friend who I knew was intimate with the Hon. Schuyler Colfax and Hon. Owen Lovejoy, through whom I hoped to obtain Mr. Lincoln's assent to my plan. I revealed to him my purpose, and asked his assistance in carrying it into effect. During the following week he went to Washington, and in company with Mr. Colfax called upon the President, and laid before him my project. He kindly listened to the details, and then said: "In short, if I understand you, you wish me to consent to sit to this artist for the picture?" My friends acknowledged this to be the object of their errand. Mr. Lincoln at once, with his accustomed kindness, promised his cooperation.
The last day of the year the Hon. Mr. Lovejoy, whom I had never met, but who had become warmly interested in the execution of the work, being in New York, called at my studio with the wife of my friend, who had been my earnest advocate. At the close of the interview he remarked, in his quaint way, taking me by the hand, "In the words of Scripture, my good friend, I can say now I believe, not on account of the saying of the woman, but because I have seen for myself."