Art treasures at the library: Lincoln at Gettysburg

19th November 1863: Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States of America, making his famous ‘Gettysburg Address’ speech at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery during the American Civil War. Original Artwork: Painting by Fletcher C Ransom (Photo by Library Of Congress/Getty Images)

By Jennifer McClain

This is the first in a series on “Treasures at the Library.” Please note that direct photographs of artwork at the library is not permitted.

You may think of Malden Public Library as a place for books, but the library has a surprisingly impressive art collection. One of its  startlingly monumental paintings is “Lincoln at Gettysburg,” by Albion Harris Bicknell (1837-1915). To examine this painting, please click on this link.

That the Gettysburg address on Nov. 19, 1861, was astounding speech of eloquence by Abraham Lincoln on that day is well known. Less well-known are the other attendees on that event. According an art collection website from Lafayette College, “Lincoln at Gettysburg” was painted in the late 1870s or early 1880s.  Bicknell depicts  20 important Union leaders, some who did not actually attend the ceremony. In a letter to the Malden Public Library, the National Park Service said the Bicknell work was the only painting made of the dedication of the national cemetery at Gettysburg.

The “Lincoln at Gettysburg” painting is in the background of this photograph from a Malden Reads Opening Celebration.

All of the twenty men represented in the painting were men of note and distinction. All posed uniquely but costumed similarly. It was a somber occasion marking the site of the bloodiest battle of the civil war. Each man is attired in a dark suit surrounded by verdant trees and placed upon a blood red carpet elaborately ornated. And in the very back center, the clouds seem to be parting and the sun fighting to be recognized symbolizing the light at the end of the long battle. All of the men’s faces are highlighted by the brightness even though they’re covered by trees. Lincoln’s face is bright too even though it was noted he was pale that day on the train from Washington going to the event and stated several times that morning that he felt dizzy. He may have even been in the early stages of smallpox, according to researchers.

In the painting, George Brinton McClellan is seen turned respectfully towards Lincoln in his Union army uniform. McClellan later went on to run against and be defeated by Lincoln in 1864 for the presidency. On the opposite side of Lincoln is Ulysses Grant, the Union general  who defeated Horation Seymour for the 1872 presidency. Grant didn’t even campaign for himself in that election. The Republicans campaigned for him with the slogan “Let us have peace” and the newly freed African-Americans with the right to vote helped him win the presidency.

Signature of artist Albion Bicknell.

Only one man is not shown with a sun bleached face. Found just behind the arm of Lincoln appearing beneath him in his shadow is George Meade. Lincoln had criticized Meade during the war. The Confederate Army suffered severe losses at Gettysburg and Lincoln felt Meade should have pursued them in his command of the Union army. Meade could not launch an attack quick enough to take on the Confederate’s vulnerabilities to Lincoln’s liking. He felt it was an unjustifiable loss of men and a wasted opportunity.

John Albion Andrew is adorned with a blood-red sash. Andrew was known as the “war governor of Massachusetts” for his stepping up the arming of a militia in Massachusetts. A fierce anti-slavery and legal advocate, he also fought to arm African Americans. Standing behind Andrew in the painting is Frederick Douglas. The stance of the two men suggests their relationship. They both agreed that allowing African Americans to become enlisted soldiers could only be a force in equalizing them in society.

Frederick Douglas’ shoulder and Lincoln’s appear to perfectly line up also in the painting. Both men were self taught and rose to ranks beyond their own imagination. Douglas taught himself to read and write and became a great orator of the day and Lincoln with only about a year of schooling became President of the United States. Frederick Douglas in reality wasn’t there that day, among others in the painting, but he is placed as a reminder of what the civil war was fought for.

One mysteriously hidden figure in the farthest left back is Andrew Johnson. He was, at the time, Lincoln’s Vice President but Bicknell took liberties with using his political fallout to place him in the far back almost hidden from view. Prominently placed in front of Johnson is Benjamin Franklin Butler. Butler earned praise as a major general, politician and lawyer by spearheading the impeachment of Johnson. Johnson attempted to take away the protections of newly freed slaves when he took office after Lincoln’s assassination. Therefore, it is fitting that he does not appear part of the event because he later went on to detract from those hard fought victories. Edwin McMasters Stanton, another huge opponent of Johnson so much so that his resignation was requested, is another prominent figure. His long brown beard covers his tie.

Most of the figures represented the Northern and antislavery movements. All of the men were politically and militarily successful.

Salem Road, Woburn, Massachusetts by Albion Harris Bicknell, oil on canvas, 36 x 50 inches, c 1886

Artist Albion Harris Bicknell also painted pastures and still lifes but was best known for his portraits and historical subjects such as “Gettysburg.” Bicknell received his training  Paris in 1850. He was a pupil of Thomas Couture at the Ecole de Beaux-Arts. Couture was a teacher of both Edouard Manet and John La Farge among other notables of the art world. After several poor reviews of his own work, Couture lashed out at the art establishment by publishing his own book detailing his methods. The preface to the book appears witty even decades after the author’s death: “Rebellious against all science, it has been impossible for me to learn by academic means.” Couture was the consummate outsider and eventually left the Paris art world to teach only in his hometown of Senlis, France.

Bicknell may have taken Couture’s attitude to heart and tried to create a new kind of art. He claimed to have invented the process for monotypes in 1881. Charles Alvah Walker disputed that insisting he was the inventor. Bricknell had already returned to Boston in 1875 and later settled in Malden. He was an art teacher and a founder of the Allston Club. The Club started in 1866 was one of the first artist’s associations. He was also considered a student of the Barbizon school, which was a movement of realism in art.

Bicknell exhibits all of his influences in this panoramic painting. Both  the realism of the Barbizon school and the rebellion of his teacher Couture are seen in the juxtaposition of many of the men in the painting. In addition, the choice of these 20 Union men some of whom didn’t even attend the ceremony is a kind of liberty or rebellion. On the Lafayett website, art historian Barbara Mitnik describes the painting as a “symbolic representation of Northern and antislavery unity.” It is a celebratory moment of a historic time; we lucky to be able to enjoy it at the Malden Public Library. We might also assume that  Albion Harris Bicknell who chose to live in Malden is proud to have it displayed there also.

Participants in a “Citizen Forum on the Constitution” pose in front of this treasured painting at the Malden Public Library.

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