Treasures from the Vault: Alexander Hay Ritchie

Katy Thompson, Associate Director of Education

It’s July; the sweltering month where we Midwesterners flock to the cool breezes of lake country and watch fireworks light up the sky, celebrating our independence from Great Britain. There are, however, multiple instances of independence, both taken from and granted to, throughout the history of the United States. Artists recorded these moments visually, recognizing them as history-in-the-making. Alexander Hay Ritchie’s engraving, based on a painting by Francis Bicknell Carpenter, portrays a private moment with Lincoln and his cabinet at the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Alexander Hay Ritchie, American, b. Scotland, 1822-1895. First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln and his Cabinet. Engraving on paper, 2008. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Hamilton Circle, 2008.02.

The Emancipation Proclamation freed all slaves held in the rebellious Southern states. Issued on January 1, 1863, it was properly a military measure, limited in it’s actual ability to free slaves as it applied only to those living in states that seceded. An attempt to turn the tide of the war, Lincoln hoped the measure would get the roughly 3.5 million slaves to join the Union army. Why this moment, then? Francis Bicknell Carpenter (1830-1900) was a New York painter who completed portraits of two American presidents (Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce) before the First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. Carpenter spent six months at the White House, from February through July 1864, an unofficial artist-in-residence, working on the life-size portrayal. Producing life sketches of Lincoln, studies of the cabinet members, and commissioning photographs for use as models, Carpenter’s access was unrivaled; it is indicative of Lincoln’s understanding of the importance of emancipation and his willingness to devote time to commemorating it visually. Though later historians critically analyzed Carpenter’s portrayal, his contemporaries lauded the work as “an unrivaled masterpiece of American historical painting…which, by universal consent, has placed Mr. Carpenter’s name second to none on the roll of eminent modern artists”. Whatever the response, Carpenter’s realistic approach was as a historian recording the facts of a momentous, unprecedented event. Yet, when choosing his composition, he focused neither on Lincoln signing it into law nor the president reading it in front of a crowd; instead, “I endeavored to imagine the conflicting emotions of satisfaction, doubt, and distrust with which such an announcement would be received by men of the varied characteristics of the assembled councilors” and their war-torn state. While William H. Seward, Secretary of State (the man seated in the foreground with his hand in his coat) believed the painting should have recorded Lincoln’s greatest achievement, the preservation of the Union (arguably accomplished through emancipating the slaves and permitting them to flood the ranks of the Union army), others were enthralled by this more private, introspective impression.

Francis Bicknell Carpenter, American, 1830-1900. First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln. Oil on canvas, 1864. U.S. Senate Collection, Public Domain. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The finished painting was quickly engraved, as promised by Carpenter to his recommender, Illinois Congressman Owen Lovejoy, by Alexander Hay Ritchie. A Scotsman born in Glasgow in 1822, Ritchie came to America in 1841 and lived the American Dream, establishing an engraving business in New York. Learning to engrave in his new country, his mezzotint portraits brought him fame during his lifetime, with his earliest known print issued about 1847. The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation Before the Cabinet, published in 1864, is one of the most widely circulated of all the Lincoln prints he published.

Subscriptions for the steel plate engraving were as follows: $50 signed artist proof, $25 indian proof, and $10 plain proof. Lincoln himself signed on as a first subscriber, the only print portrait of himself purchased by the president, for a $50 artist’s proof, as did the other living subjects of the canvas (Caleb B. Smith had died). A painting is one-and-done; a print, however, is part of an edition made available to the sitters and the public who want to mark the historic occasion. To put it in contemporary terms, many saved magazines and newspapers from Obama’s presidential election win–a small piece of a larger historical event. Ritchie worked from a copy of the painting Carpenter created for this purpose; and, while most prints are made as a reaction to a popular painting, it was Ritchie’s print that lent infamy to Carpenter’s painting. In fact, it was Ritchie’s engraving that was pirated by other artists, for example, lithographer Edward Herline, and not the painting.

Looking at the work the FMWoA holds, we see a black-and-white portrayal of Lincoln and his cabinet, who are seated and standing around a table, as he reads them through an early draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. As if seated and looking in: from the left ground, Edward Stanton, Secretary of War, is seated; Salomon P. Chase, Secretary of Treasury, is standing; President Lincoln is seated at the table; Gideon Welles, Secretary of Navy, is seated behind the table; William H. Seward, Secretary of State, is seated in front of the table opposite President Lincoln; Caleb B. Smith, Secretary of Interior, and Montgomery Blair, Postmaster-General, are standing behind the table and to the left of Gideon Welles; and Edward Bates, Attorney-General, is seated at the far right. Grouped along party lines, radical and conservative, Lincoln sits at the head between the two; though he is nearest the radicals, he still acts as a uniting point. The chief powers, War and Finance, are at his right (right-hand man) with War in the foreground, suggestive of the state of the Union. (In Carpenter’s painting, hanging on the wall behind the group, is a portrait of former president Andrew Jackson who preserved the Union thanks to his role in the Nullification Crisis of 1832). The members are surrounded by books, maps, pages of paper, and inkwells—a working session.

The print, and painting, represent the United States at a historically turbulent time, at war because of divisive beliefs over human rights. While Lincoln’s move was, ultimately, a calculated attempt to ensure a Union victory it also paved the way for the 13th Amendment, which fully abolished slavery in 1865. Carpenter was prescient in his recognition of this moment as Lincoln’s legacy; today, it is apparent that the United States continues to struggle with similar questions of personal liberties. Looking at this engraving, what can we learn about the United States?

Interestingly, despite Lincoln purchasing a print, the government never purchased the painting itself; instead, it was gifted by Elizabeth Thompson, in 1877, and now hangs in the U.S. Capital over the west staircase in the Senate wing.

Holzer, Harold, Gabor S. Borritt, and Mark E. Neely, Jr. The Lincoln Image: Abraham Lincoln and the Popular Print. The Scribner Press: New York, NY, 1984.

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