Lawmakers, staffers and visitors to Congress would be hard-pressed not to notice the momentous historical occasion hanging before them when they mount the west staircase of the Senate wing. Fifteen feet wide and painted in painstaking detail, Francis Bicknell Carpenter’s “First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln” is glorious not only for the scene it depicts but also for its sheer size and meticulous craftsmanship.
“It’s a favorite among visitors and staff and scholars alike,” says Melinda Smith, an associate Senate curator. “We do get a lot of requests for people to come and actually see the painting.”
Carpenter started his project on Feb. 6, 1864, with the full support of Lincoln and his staff. A studio was built in the White House’s State Dining Room, and Carpenter repeatedly met with Lincoln, who recounted to him the events in 1862 when the president first read the proclamation to his Cabinet. Lincoln gave the artist free rein, and Carpenter soon became a fly on the wall during some of the most tumultuous years in the White House.
“He really did become part of the woodwork in some respects,” Smith says. “He was there for long hours, often staying overnight.”
Smith recalls one anecdote in which a visitor who had come to discuss business with the president noticed Carpenter standing in the room. Dismissing any concerns his visitor might have had, Lincoln casually referred to the artist as “just the painter.”
Carpenter completed the portrait in July 1864. Working off of Lincoln’s memory, and using photographs of the Cabinet members taken by celebrated photographer Mathew Brady, he depicted the scene as a relatively low-key, static affair. Lincoln is seated at a table with the proclamation in front of him. Surrounding him are the members of his Cabinet, including Secretary of War Edward M. Stanton and Secretary of State William Seward. The artist uses dark, solemn colors — mostly black and brown — to emphasize the gravity of the moment, with only light touches of red and green adding any other color to the portrait.
The portrait was well-received when it was presented to the public, and it was displayed in the White House for a while before touring the nation for an extended period of time. Despite its popularity, Congress didn’t acquire it until 1877, when art collector Elizabeth Thompson purchased the piece for $25,000 and donated it as a gift to her country.
Carpenter, ever the perfectionist, continued to work on the painting for several years after presenting it to the president. Many argue, however, that his constant tweaking weakened the effectiveness of the portrait. For example, the artist was dissatisfied with his likeness of Lincoln and continued to revise it until the final version barely resembled what he had originally painted. Finally, in 1991, the painting was restored to its original splendor.
Smith says the work continues to be one of the most popular and oft-requested pieces on display in the Senate.
“I think that people look on it more because of the event and what it portrays and how it carries us back in time, giving us a feeling that we’re almost there,” she says.
Art: First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln (Francis Bicknell Carpenter)
Location: Senate west staircase