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The final portrait of Abraham Lincoln

Portrait of Abraham Lincoln by George Henry Story

In June 1861, a young artist named George Henry Story was invited to observe and make sketches of President Abraham Lincoln for a commission portrait. Story later wrote "On three successive days I quietly entered the president's office and made pencil notes of my subject and mental observations of the changes in his countenance while he was...under the influence of state affairs in the different interviews with his visitors.” Less than four years later, President Lincoln was assassinated. The people of freedom were devastated. Story couldn't bring himself to paint his beloved Lincoln.

It wasn’t until our country considered entering another war (The First World War) that George Henry Story was reminded of Lincoln’s great purpose in life: to end slavery and preserve the union. In 1916, during a visit to Washington, D.C., George Story was disappointed to see so few portraits of Abraham Lincoln displayed in public buildings. Story had a new purpose in life; to paint Lincoln in a way that would remind us of the great cost and sacrifice of civil division.

George Henry Story (1835-1923) became known as “the man that painted Lincoln”. Several Story-Lincoln portraits were immediately acquired by the National Galleries in Washington. The Story-Lincoln portraits are on display at the White House Oval Office, the Smithsonian Institution, the Huntington Library, the Metropolitan Museum, Lafayette College, and several historical sites in Illinois. At 81 years old, Story had mastered the famous expression of Lincoln staring off the canvas. Lincoln's gaze is truly mesmerizing. The Capitol Building, off Lincoln's shoulder on right, glows as a beacon of hope in the background. The portrait and background evoke the consecrated feeling of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Story's portraits of Lincoln are the most admired likenesses ever painted.

President Obama in the Oval Office viewing a George Story portrait of Lincoln .
President Obama in the Oval Office viewing a George Story portrait of Lincoln .

In 1918, famous art dealer, Charles Duveen, commissioned George Henry Story to paint the final portrait of Abraham Lincoln (those being painted from life sketches by the artist). Story would paint the crown epilogue of his life's work. Duveen would make it the most valuable painting of Abraham Lincoln every sold.

Duveen's client, John R. Thompson of Chicago, was the owner a national restaurant chain, one of the first in America. Samuel Behrman, in his book titled “Duveen”, describes the relationship between Duveen and Thompson. Duveen had first thought Thompson a “small fry” restaurant owner unable to afford great art. When Duveen guided Thompson past a room in his gallery mentioning that the section was reserved for a favorite client; Thompson insisted on seeing the art. When given the price of $1,000,000 ($17.4MM in today's dollars) for a group of 6 paintings, Thompson instantly agreed. Duveen had a new favorite client. Duveen would later sell the Lincoln portrait to Thompson for $67,000 (about $1,167,000 in today's dollars). The image, acclaimed throughout the art world, was licensed by an advertising agency to use for marketing materials for banks and insurance companies that carried Lincoln's name.

Portrait of Abraham Lincoln by George Story
Auction Catalog 1944

In 1944, during the hardships of the Second World War, the art collection of John R. Thompson’s estate was sent to auction at Parke-Bernet Galleries (now Sotheby's) in New York City. John Thompson’s granddaughter, Ruth Thompson (Owen), went to the auction to buy the painting that was removed from her family's library. Fate, and war time economics, would return the legacy to her family. The portrait remained at the Thompson home for another 71 years until it was offered for sale in 2015. Today, it is the only original Story-Lincoln portrait of its kind held in a private collection.

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