Thursday, February 14, 2013

Domestic Scenes of Famous Men

Augustus L. Weise. General Grant and His Family (Philadelphia: Joseph Hoover, 1866). Hand-colored lithograph. Purchased with funds from the Davida T. Deutsch Women’s History Fund.

Currently on display at the entrance to the Reading Room is a small exhibition entitled “’And His Family’: Prints Depicting Famous Men at Home.” In the years directly after the Civil War, with wartime animosities still fresh in the nation’s consciousness, prints depicting famous men with their families and stressing harmonious domestic life enjoyed a particular vogue. This year we are making a special effort to acquire such prints, courtesy of the Davida T. Deutsch Women’s History Fund, and have assembled some highlights featuring Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln as family men.

After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in April 1865, printmakers published many prints depicting him either separately or with members of his family.  In an engraving by painter Frederic Schell included in the exhibition, a scene of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln and their son Tad copied from a well-known photograph is embellished with a portrait of “Willie,” the Lincolns’ son who died at the age of eleven in 1862.

In the same years at least five different artists depicted Ulysses S. Grant with his wife Julia and their four children—often in domestic settings similar to those in which the Lincoln family was represented. Portraying Grant thus, after numerous other portraits had shown him as a Union general, may have helped elect him president in 1868. Also politically useful (with many Southerners and Northern Copperheads) was the fact that his wife Julia’s father had owned slaves in her native Missouri. But artists probably found depicting Julia Grant a challenge because she was cross-eyed; they almost always showed her face in profile.

“And His Family” will be on view until May 2013.

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