Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Mary Lincoln Portrait

I saw this article recently and thought it was interesting. A painting of Mrs. Lincoln hung in the Governor's Mansion in Illinois for 32 years before being found at as a fraud!
The canvas, which was purchased by Abraham Lincoln’s descendants before being donated to the state’s historical library in the 1970s, was discovered to be a hoax when it was sent to a conservator for cleaning, said James M. Cornelius, the curator of the Lincoln library and museum in Springfield.

So what is this really?
In reality, the painting depicts an unknown woman and was created by an anonymous 19th-century artist, said Barry Bauman, the independent conservator who uncovered the fraud. The con, however, dates to the late 1920s, when the portrait was recast as that of Mrs. Lincoln, he said.

Mr. Bauman identifies the culprit behind the scam as Ludwig Pflum, who rechristened himself Lew Bloom and was given to the kind of self-invention that America became famous for during the industrial era. He worked as a jockey, circus clown, boxer and vaudevillian before settling on art collecting.

When he died less than a year after the painting’s public unveiling, an obituary in a Reading, Pa., newspaper noted that he “dabbled in oil paintings.” Apparently he dabbled more than anyone at the time realized.

Mr. Bauman, who offers his services pro bono to museums and nonprofit groups, said he believed that Mr. Bloom altered the subject’s facial features; painted over some accessories, including a necklace with a cross; and added a brooch with the president’s picture.

Mr. Bloom concocted a story to accompany his handiwork, saying that Mrs. Lincoln surreptitiously approached Mr. Carpenter while he was at the White House working on his 15-by-9-foot painting, “The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation” which hangs in the Capitol. She had planned a party, he said, where she would give the portrait as a surprise to her husband.

But, as the story went, after John Wilkes Booth shot the president at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865, the distraught and impoverished first lady asked Mr. Carpenter to dispose of it. Mr. Carpenter, Mr. Bloom claimed, sold it to a wealthy Philadelphia family, the Neafies, who in turn gave it to Mr. Bloom’s sister Susan, in thanks for her nursing a relative through a long illness.
Mr. Bloom attached a notarized affidavit attesting to this fabricated history on the back of the painting before exhibiting it as a “never-before-seen-portrait” in 1929 at Milch Galleries in Manhattan. “Bloom knew he could get away with it, for all of the individuals mentioned in the affidavit were dead,” Mr. Bauman said. “The smoking gun,” he explained, was that Mr. Bloom’s sister had been only 5 when the Neafie relative died. \

Mr. Cornelius explained that the Lincoln family was an easy mark at the time. The president’s only surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln, had died in 1926. Robert’s widow, Mary Harlan Lincoln, was still trying to stifle negative publicity about the Lincolns and even paid to squelch a series of articles about Robert’s institutionalizing his mentally unstable mother against her will in 1875. So Mr. Bloom most likely assumed that something that presented Mrs. Lincoln in a sympathetic light would appeal to the family, Mr. Cornelius said. Robert’s daughter, Jessie, bought the painting for $2,000 to $3,000.

It remained in the family’s hands until 1976, when Lincoln’s last living descendant, his great-grandson, Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith, gave the portrait to the Illinois State Historical Library (since renamed the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum).

The portrait was analyzed when first brought, but it wasn't deemed a fraud at the time:
The portrait was then sent to the Art Institute of Chicago where conservators quickly realized that significant parts of the canvas had been retouched.

The underlying portrait, they found, was of a different, plainer woman and painted in a different style. She was wearing a cross, which would have been a bit odd for Mary, a Protestant. They also recognized that a brooch featuring the president’s picture that Mrs. Lincoln wore in the retouched painting had been added later.

Harold Holzer, a Lincoln scholar, said that Mrs. Lincoln always hated the 1857 photograph on which the brooch’s likeness of the president was based, complaining about “the disordered condition of his hair.”

“If Frank Carpenter had ever produced a picture with that image, Mary would have broken it over his head,” Mr. Holzer said.

But if the Art Institute conservators suspected fraud, there is nothing in their correspondence to indicate it, Mr. Cornelius said. In letters from 1977 and 1978, they suggest that the changes were the result of “heavy-handed” restorers who had preceded them. As for the lack of resemblance to Mrs. Lincoln, a conservator wrote that “many an artist idealizes their sitter.”

The state historian at the time, William Alderfer, instructed the conservators to leave in both the Lincoln brooch and the cross, and the reworked painting was then hung in the governor’s mansion.

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