Update: The hand-colored circa 1865 memorial Lincoln lithograph sold for $4,000.
What you see: In Memory of Abraham Lincoln, the Reward of the Just, a hand-colored lithograph by D.T. Wiest, printed circa 1865. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $2,000 to $3,000.
The expert: Rick Stattler, director of printed and manuscript Americana for Swann Auction Galleries.
Do we know how many of these Lincoln prints were made, and how many survive? There’s likely no way to know how many were produced. I imagine at least a couple of hundred were made. I’ve tracked down three in institutions and two at auction.
The print’s date is given as circa 1865, but is it fair to assume it would have been done very soon after Lincoln’s assassination in April of that year? Absolutely. It’s fairly laborious work to make a lithograph like this. It wasn’t made the day after, but it was made in response to the assassination, I’m pretty confident. The engraver, Wiest, is largely unknown. He didn’t have a long career as a lithographer. He was only active in 1865.
The Lincoln print is closely modeled after an 1801 image by John James Barralet known as The Apotheosis of Washington [scroll down to see the image]. How would Wiest have made his Lincoln-centric version? Would he have looked at the Barralet print and copied most of it onto a new lithographic stone? Right. The copy, I would say, is semi-pirated, but it’s got enough changes in style and composition. I don’t know what the copyright laws were then.
How well-known was the Barralet image in 1865? It was an image that might have been familiar to some people, but by 1865, I don’t expect it was probably terribly well-known.
So the Barralet image of Washington was not part of popular culture in 1865? Yes, and probably the creative process here was not all that sophisticated. The printer wanted something dramatic, something that would catch the eye and stir the emotions, and he wanted to get it in the hands of the public as quickly as possible. The printer probably showed the Barralet to Wiest and said, “Do something like this, but with Lincoln.” When Washington died, there would have been a small audience for the Barralet print, and it would have been a luxury item. The audience would have been sophisticated, and would have picked up on its classical analogies. By 1865, print-making was a much more mass-market endeavor. The audience didn’t care much about symbolism.
Is the Lincoln print as colorful as most lithographs of its era, or is it more colorful? For its period, it’s certainly one of the more eye-catching ones. The color is quite nice and rich. It definitely tilts toward the colorful end of the spectrum.
So it’s the sort of thing that a print shop would put in its shop window to draw in customers? That’s a likely way to advertise it, sure.
Wiest changed the face of Washington to the face of Lincoln, and he changed the inscription on the tomb, but he didn’t change several details that he could have changed and probably should have changed… The goal, when the print was produced, was to get it into the hands of the public quickly. I don’t know if we can say that some of those details should have been changed. It may not have been profitable for them to spend a week on changing them. If it was produced as fine art, then or now, they might have reconsidered the symbolism. The mourning Indian was a symbol of America in 1800, but clearly, for someone mourning Lincoln’s loss, it should have been changed to a freed slave. They probably should have taken the extra two days to do that, particularly if their main sales were in Philadelphia, an abolitionist city. But they didn’t.
Would the average American print-buyer in 1865 have cared that the American flag-decorated shield on the left has 15 stars in in its canton and not the 35 it should have had by then? Not necessarily. If you’re looking to buy a print for 50 cents–and I don’t know if that was its 1865 price, but that seems reasonable–you might not count the stars. Also, we grew up with a flag with 50 stars. We think of it as a fixed thing. In the 1800s, the stars changed with each new state.
So these Washington-centric details that Wiest copied over–the badges on the tomb that represent the Society of Cincinnati and the Freemasons, the out-of-date canton, the mourning Native American where a freed slave would be more appropriate–would an 1865 audience have seen them as errors? Errors on whose part? Wiest was given an assignment and he fulfilled it faithfully, with Lincoln’s face [in place of Washington’s]. They’re not exactly errors, but they’re things that could have been improved on if more thought had been given to it. But it gives us more to chew on. We can ponder the evolution.
And because the Washington print wasn’t part of pop culture in 1865, we can’t assume that Wiest was being clever by tying the legacy of Lincoln directly to Washington by deliberately borrowing the visuals of the 1801 Barralet print? Yeah, but if it did happen, it would have been an additional selling point. Some might say, ‘Hey, it’s that old Washington print. That’s how we mourn our heroes.’ In Henry Holzer’s [the consigner’s] scholarship, this is the moment when Lincoln joined the pantheon. For 80 years, it was Washington, the founder of the country. Now we start to see Lincoln as his peer or equal. It’s hard to imagine that happening today. I can’t imagine such a print featuring Obama or Trump in place of Lincoln.
Do these details that look like errors make the print appealing to modern collectors? The first point of appeal to modern buyers is the same point that appealed to buyers in 1865. It’s patriotic, it’s colorful, Lincoln is in the center, and it’s an eye-catching print. From there, it’s a historical curiosity, designed for Washington but with Lincoln’s head awkwardly glued in where Washington’s head had been. It not only looks great on the wall, it’s something to chew on and discuss with friends. And it’s a tribute to Lincoln, who people still admire.
How to bid: The lithograph is lot 141 in Printed & Manuscript Americana Featuring the Holzer Collection of Lincolniana, taking place September 27, 2018 at Swann Auction Galleries.
Rick Sattler spoke to The Hot Bid before about a lot of early 20th century copies of Gleanings in Bee Culture which included the issue that contained the first published account of the Wright brothers’ first successful flight. The lot sold for $5,000, double its high estimate.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.
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