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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

Lincoln in the State Dining Room

Abraham Lincoln by George Peter Alexander Healy, 1869.

White House Historical Association (White House Collection)

For over 75 years, George Peter Alexander Healy’s portrait of Abraham Lincoln has remained an important aesthetic element for the White House State Dining Room. Prominently displayed above the central mantel, millions of visitors have seen it during a public tour or on a visit to the White House. Lincoln’s placement in one of the largest rooms on the State Floor and on the same axis as Gilbert Stuart’s well-known portrait of George Washington in the nearby East Room symbolizes his significance in American history.

Ironically, the portrait was originally rejected for display in the White House. In August 1864, Healy began work on a Lincoln portrait which culminated in the dramatic 1868 painting known as The Peacemakers, depicting Lincoln on the River Queen steamer near the end of the Civil War with Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant, as well as Rear Admiral David D. Porter.1 Previous to this Healy had been commissioned in 1857 to paint portraits of Presidents John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, James K. Polk, Millard Fillmore, and Franklin Pierce. Healy decided to base his portrait of Lincoln on the contemplative pose illustrated in The Peacemakers.

George Peter Alexander Healy, ca. 1855-1865.

Library of Congress

After the portrait’s completion in France in 1869, it was sent to the White House to join the Executive Mansion’s growing collection of presidential portraits. President Grant, however, did not find the portrait suitable and selected another Lincoln portrait by William F. Cogswell. Robert Todd Lincoln, the eldest son of President Lincoln, bought the Healy portrait, remarking later in life, “I have never seen a portrait of my father which is to be compared with it in any way.”

Seventy years later in 1939, the portrait finally made its way to the White House at the bequest of Mary Harlan Lincoln, wife of Robert Todd Lincoln. She originally gave the portrait to her daughter, Mary Lincoln Isham, to possess for the remainder of her life. The portrait was then to be given to the United States government “provided it be given an appropriate place in the White House in Washington.” This took place upon the death of Mary Lincoln Isham in November 1938. On January 7, 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote to Frederic N. Towers, an executor and trustee of Mary Harlan Lincoln’s will, that it would give him “great pleasure to receive for the White House the Healy portrait.”2

The State Dining Room in 1948 before the Truman Renovation.

White House Collection

Upon its arrival at the White House, the Healy portrait’s destination remained undecided. One newspaper described the Cogswell portrait preferred by Grant as still hanging in the State Dining Room, but the Healy portrait replaced it shortly thereafter.3 Its subsequent occasional absences from there were only temporary, as presidents either left it above the mantle or later changed their minds and returned it to the State Dining Room. During the Dwight Eisenhower administration, the piece was reportedly relocated elsewhere on the State Floor so school children could view the portrait, as the State Dining Room was often closed during tours in preparation for luncheons and other events. Lincoln was returned to the State Dining Room within the first few weeks of the John F. Kennedy administration.4 In 1962, it was briefly replaced by a recently acquired Rembrandt Peale painting of George Washington while it underwent conservation treatment.5 Likewise, in 1973, a landscape by Jasper Francis Cropsey temporarily replaced the Healy Lincoln, which was moved to the East Room. White House Curator Clement Conger justified its relocation, reasoning, “we thought the Lincoln portrait looked rather too brooding for that spot.”6 Restored to the State Dining Room by President Gerald Ford in August 1974, the painting has been consistently displayed there ever since, and at times serves as a rhetorical tool for presidents while speaking to guests, dignitaries, and visiting heads of state in the historic room.7

Healy’s Lincoln portrait hangs above the State Dining Room mantel during a December 20, 1965 State Dinner in honor of West German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard.

White House Historical Association

Given its highly visible location in the White House, it is no surprise the depiction of Lincoln has become a White House favorite. For Christmas in 1971, the Nixons gave White House staff members an 8x10-inch velvet cased photograph of the Healy portrait.8 In 1999, Healy’s depiction was used for the official White House Christmas ornament, commissioned by the White House Historical Association.

Despite its initial rejection for display in the White House by President Grant, Healy’s portrait of Lincoln has become an iconic piece of White House artwork, reflecting the country’s interest in, fascination with, and recognition of the significance of its sixteenth president.

The State Dining Room in 2010.

White House Historical Association