The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 18/Number 109/Art
MARSHALL'S PORTRAIT OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN.
When we consider the conditions under which the art of successful line-engraving is attained, the amount and quality of artistic knowledge implied, the years of patient, unwearied application imperiously demanded, the numerous manual difficulties to be overcome, and the technical skill to be acquired, it is not surprising that the names of so few engravers should be pre-eminent and familiar.
In our own country, at least, the instinct and habit of the people do not favor the growth and perfection of an art only possible under such conditions.
So fully and satisfactorily, however, have these demands been met in Marshall's line-engraving of the head of Abraham Lincoln, executed after Mr. Marshall's own painting, that we are induced to these preliminary thoughts as much by a sense of national pride as of delight and surprise.
Our admiration of the engraving is first due to its value as a likeness; for it is only when the heart rests from a full and satisfied contemplation of the face endeared to us all, that we can regard it for its artistic worth.
Mr. Marshall did not need this last work, to rank him at the head of American engravers; for his portraits of Washington and Fenimore Cooper had done that already; but it has lifted him to a place with the foremost engravers of the world.
The greatness and glory of his success, in this instance, are to be measured by the inherent difficulties in the subject itself.
The intellectual and physical traits of Abraham Lincoln were such as the world had never seen before. Original, peculiar, and anomalous, they seemed incapable of analysis and classification.
While the keen, comprehensive intellect within that broad, grand forehead was struggling with the great problems of national fate, other faculties of the same organization, strongly marked in the lower features of his face, seemed to be making light of the whole matter.
His character and the physical expression of it were unique, and yet made up of the most complex elements;—simple, yet incomprehensible; strong, yet gentle; inflexible, yet conciliating; human, yet most rare; the strangest, and yet for all in all the most lovable, character in history.
To represent this man, to embody these characteristics, was the work prescribed the artist. Instead of being fetters, these contradictions seem to have been incentives to the artist. Justice to himself, as to an American who loved Lincoln, and justice to the great man, the truest American of his time, appear also to have been his inspiration.
Neglected now, this golden opportunity might be lost forever, and the future be haunted by an ideal only, and never be familiarized with the plain, good face we knew. For what could the future make of all these caricatures and uncouth efforts at portraiture, rendered only more grotesque when stretched upon the rack of a thousand canvases? No less a benefactor to art than to humanity is he who shall deliver the world of these.
The artist has chosen, with admirable judgment, a quiet, restful, familiar phase of Mr. Lincoln's life, with the social and genial sentiments of his nature at play, rather than some more impressive and startling hour of his public life, when a victory was gained, or an immortal sentence uttered at Gettysburg or the Capitol, or when, as the great Emancipator, he walked with his liberated children through the applauding streets of Richmond. It was tempting to paint him as President, but triumphant to represent him as a man.
Though the face is wanting in the crowning glory of the dramatic, the romantic, the picturesque,—elements so fascinating to an artist,—we still feel no loss in the absence of these; for Mr. Marshall has found abundant material in the rich and varied qualities that Mr. Lincoln did possess, and has treated them with the loftier sense of justice and truth, he has employed no adventitious agencies to give brilliancy or emphasis to any salient point in the character of the man he portrays; he has treated Mr. Lincoln as he found him; he has interpreted him as he would have interpreted himself; in inspiration, in execution, and in result, he thought of none other, he labored for none other, he has given us none other, than simple, honest Abraham Lincoln.
Were all the biographies and estimates of the President's character to be lost, it would seem as if, from this picture alone, the distinguishing qualities of his head and heart might be saved to the knowledge of the future; for a rarer exhibition seems impossible of the power of imparting inner spiritual states to outward physical expression.
As a work of art, we repeat, this is beyond question the finest instance of line-engraving yet executed on this continent. Free from carelessness or coarseness, it is yet strong and emphatic; exquisitely finished, yet without painful over-elaboration; with no weary monotony of parallel lines to fill a given space, and no unrelieved masses of shade merely because here must the shadow fall.
As a likeness, it is complete and final. Coming generations will know Abraham Lincoln by this picture, and will tenderly and lovingly regard it; for all that art could do to save and perpetuate this lamented man has here been done. What it lacks, art is incapable to express; what it has lost, memory is powerless to restore.
There is, at least, some temporary solace to a bereaved country in this,—that so much has been saved from the remorseless demands of Death; though the old grief will ever come back to its still uncomforted heart, when it turns to that tomb by the Western prairie, within whose sacred silence so much sweetness and kindly sympathy and unaffected love have passed away, and the strange pathos, that we could not understand, and least of all remove, has faded forever from those sorrowful eyes.