Abraham Lincoln’s Brief Life As Explained By Photos

Published March 27, 2015
Updated March 17, 2016

Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809, which means photography was developed in his lifetime. Like anything that comes into the world while you’re a young adult, men of Lincoln’s generation found photography very exciting and often commemorated important milestones by sitting for a portrait. Lincoln, who was a prominent lawyer in Illinois before becoming an even more prominent politician, sat for more than his share of pictures.

Unfortunately, the Fates decreed that the life of Abraham Lincoln was to be filled with grief, and the years left their marks on the man’s face like a well-worn dirt track. Sadly, though Abraham Lincoln lived in an age of photographs, he died a generation before we could capture his (thin and reedy, by all accounts) voice, leaving this (largely) photographic record as almost all we have of him.

Abraham Lincoln Photos First Portrait
This is the earliest known image of the 16th president. It's a Daguerreotype taken in 1847, immediately before Lincoln was sworn in as a member of the 30th Congress. He had pledged to serve only a single term in Washington, but his time in Congress was marked by a fierce opposition to the Mexican War and, especially, to the exceptional war powers granted to the president—an opposition he would eventually regret. This picture was taken by Nicholas Shepard, who had briefly studied law at Lincoln's firm in Springfield. Source: Reddit

Abraham Lincoln Photos 1854 Paper
The next-earliest known picture of Lincoln was made in October 1854, in Chicago. In this picture, the dapper 45-year-old Lincoln happens to be dressed for a night out with friends. George Schneider, the publisher of a German-language abolitionist paper, invited Lincoln out for the evening and suggested they stop by a studio for a portrait. The paper Lincoln is holding is the Illinois Staats-Zeitung, Schneider's paper. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Abraham Lincoln Photos Messy Hair
This picture was taken in 1857, at the request of the Illinois State Bar Association. Lincoln reportedly wasn't happy with the request, as he disliked the way his face looked in pictures. Joseph Medill, the owner of the Chicago Tribune, was present for this sitting. According to him, the photographer tried to smooth down Lincoln's hair, which must have pissed him off, because he immediately ran his fingers through his hair and created this mess here. The original negative of this picture was reportedly lost in the Great Chicago Fire. Thanks, Mrs. O'Leary. Source: Vebidoo

Abraham Lincoln Photos Ambrotype
This small portrait was an Ambrotype, an odd and short-lived method of photography that can only really be viewed by reflected light. This was one of the few portraits of himself Lincoln liked, and he kept a copy for himself. The original is in the Illinois State Historical Library. This picture was taken of Lincoln in 1857, just a few weeks after what history remembers as "the infamous" Dred Scott decision was handed down. The Supreme Court's action, in ruling that blacks were not citizens anywhere in the country, practically guaranteed that war would come—soon—and that the abolitionist Republican Party would lead one faction of it. Source: Lincoln Douglas Quincy Debate

Abraham Lincoln Photos 1858
Roderick Cole took this picture of Lincoln in 1858. According to a letter Cole wrote 50 years later, Lincoln said to him: "I cannot see why all you artists want a likeness of me unless it is because I am the homeliest man in the State of Illinois." This was another rare portrait Lincoln liked; he would go on to use it during his 1860 campaign and even sign copies of it for admirers. Source: Alex Waterhouse Hayward

Abraham Lincoln Photos Suit
In 1858, pro-slavery candidate Stephen Douglas broke with his own party's president and staged what amounted to a coup within the Democratic Party to gain one of Illinois' seats in the U.S. Senate. The only opposition he faced was the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln. It was during their famous debates that Lincoln said: "A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half-slave and half-free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other." Lincoln lost the election, which was decided in the Illinois Legislature along strict party lines. Source: Gallery Hip

Abraham Lincoln Photos Suppressing Laugh
This picture was made a few months before Lincoln's 1858 defeat in the Senate race. It's difficult to tell, but in this picture he's suppressing a laugh. According to J. O. Cunningham, who was present for the sitting, Lincoln arrived for the picture in a shabby coat, which was all he had at the time. The photographer, Samuel Alschuler, offered Lincoln his own coat, which was almost a foot short on each arm. Lincoln "laughed immoderately" at the spectacle, and tried to keep it under control for the 10-second exposure. Source: UPC Scavenger

Abraham Lincoln Photos Likeness
No picture of Abraham Lincoln ever did him justice. Among his friends and neighbors, it had become something of a joke. On seeing this 1858 Ambrotype, however, nearly all agreed it was the best likeness of the man they had ever seen. Before the shoot, the artist suggested Mr. Lincoln "freshen up a bit." Lincoln, who was painfully self-aware, quipped that it wouldn't be much of a likeness if he freshened up. Source: Stephen Lang Photography

Lincoln For Mother
Mary Hanks, Lincoln's biological mother (and third cousin, five times removed of actor Tom Hanks) died from drinking contaminated milk when her son was only nine years old. The woman he called "Mother" after that was his stepmother, who married Abraham's father when he was a teenager. This portrait was made at her request, though Lincoln's handwritten note read: "This is not a very good-looking picture, but it's the best that could be produced from the poor subject." Source: University of Missouri

Abraham Lincoln Photos 1859
Shortly after his defeat in the Senate race. It had been a hard campaign. Source: UPC Scavenger

Abraham Lincoln Photos Brady
This portrait is almost as notable for its artist as for its subject. This is the first picture of Abraham Lincoln to have been taken by Matthew Brady, who practically invented battlefield journalism and brought the Civil War into every home in the country. A shot like this really shows off what a professional Brady was. He fixed Lincoln's hair, turned up his collar, staged the scene with books, and did what he could to manage Lincoln's lazy left eye with positioning and touch-up work later on. Of this picture, which was plastered on newspapers nationwide, Lincoln would later say: "Brady and the Cooper Institute made me President." Source: Wordpress

Abraham Lincoln Photos Mysterious
Nobody knows anything about this picture. It is believed to have been taken in the spring or summer of 1860, it's probably the only print from the negative, and Lincoln doesn't look like hot death in it; that's all we have. We don't even know the name of the artist. Source: UPC Scavenger

Abraham Lincoln Photos Reading Glasses
May 9, 1860. Lincoln is in Decatur, at the Republican Party convention. Before TV was a thing, political parties used to organize statewide conventions and coordinate activities. Lincoln gave an address to the convention on May 10, but had to deal with party business throughout the event. If you look very closely, you can see the cord running into his coat which holds his reading glasses. Nine days after this portrait, Abraham Lincoln would rise to accept his party's nomination for the office of President. Source: Blogspot

Abraham Lincoln Photos After Nom
William Marsh took this picture on May 20, 1860; two days after the nomination. Lincoln was in Springfield and, no doubt, very busy. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Abraham Lincoln Photos 1860 Photo
In June 1860, Lincoln sat for four portraits at once. They're notable for two reasons: first, this was the first time Lincoln had been photographed (previous portraits were all Daguerreotypes or Ambrotypes), and second, Lincoln uncharacteristically loved this picture. He said: "That looks better and expresses me better than any I have ever seen. If it pleases the people I am satisfied." Source: UPC Scavenger

Abraham Lincoln Photos Standing
Abraham Lincoln was an absurdly proportioned man. He stood 6'4", and his arms dangled like loose fire hoses at his sides. Despite his gangly appearance, Lincoln was freakishly strong. As a young man, he earned quite a bit of respect around town by challenging local toughs to wrestling matches. He had a knack for lifting his opponents at arm's length and tossing them. In 12 years of wrestling, he only seems to have lost once. Bizarrely, he wasn't the only wrestling president. Theodore Roosevelt, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, Chester A. Arthur, Andrew Jackson, and George Goddamn Washington were all wrestlers. Somebody animate this now! Source: Wikipedia

Abraham Lincoln Photos Photoshop
19th-century Photoshop. Photographer William Shaw gave this picture, taken for a Chicago newspaper, such a heroic going-over that it's practically a composite sketch. In this picture, Lincoln has no wrinkles, no bags under his eyes, and barely any shadow on his face, as if the light is in love with him and can't bear to be parted. As long as we're faking things, would it have killed Shaw to touch up that hemmed lapel? Source: Wikimedia Commons

Abraham Lincoln Photos Beard
The first picture of Lincoln wearing a beard, from during the 1860 campaign. That dumb story about the 11-year-old girl writing to him and suggesting the beard is, like many other dumb stories, absolutely true. Grace Bedell wrote to then-candidate Lincoln, saying: "All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President." Lincoln worried that a beard would look like a silly affectation, which it certainly was, but he took the suggestion and a trademark look was born. Source: Tumblr

Abraham Lincoln Photos 1861 Leaving
Lincoln practically had to sneak into Washington for his own inauguration. His election was the signal for South Carolina to secede from the union, and many other states followed right after. Jefferson Davis was actually chosen and inaugurated as president of the Confederate States of America before Lincoln could be installed. Lincoln left Illinois two days after this picture was taken and took a slow train to the capital. The next time he crossed into Illinois would be for his funeral. Source: Fans Share

Abraham Lincoln Photos 1861 Arrival
The first portrait taken on arrival in Washington, February 24, 1861. Source: Cody Sisco

Lincoln Before Sumter
Another portrait by Matthew Brady. This picture was taken on April 6, 1861. Six days later, Confederate batteries opened fire on Fort Sumter. Source: IMG Kid

Abraham Lincoln Photos Pose
Brady again, about six weeks later. There's that stovepipe hat. Source: Driver Layer

Abraham Lincoln Photos 1862 Antietam
In September 1862, the Army of Northern Virginia, having just driven McClellan away from Richmond in a brilliant series of flanking maneuvers, crossed into Maryland in an effort to shock the Union into pulling back. The invasion came to grief on the banks of Antietam Creek, where an average of one man died every minute for eight hours. Lee withdrew, but McClellan failed to pursue. This picture was taken a few weeks after the battle, while the Union Army was still paralyzed and inactive. Lincoln made the trip out to plead with McClellan to move on Virginia, only for the general to temporize further. A month after this picture was taken, Lincoln had had enough; he fired George McClellan for good. Antietam was close enough to a victory that it was all the excuse Lincoln needed to finally issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Source: IMG Kid

Abraham Lincoln Photos Chain
Lincoln at another turning point in the war. Between July 1 and 3, 1863, the largest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere raged across Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. On the last day of the battle, 12,500 men under Confederate George Pickett marched into Union guns in the center of the battle line. Only around half of them made it back—most of them with a limp—and Lee's second (and last) invasion of the North was decisively repulsed. The next day, July 4, the last Confederate outpost on the Mississippi River, Vicksburg, surrendered to General U.S. Grant. In this picture, taken around that time, Lincoln is posed wearing the gold watch chain he was given by a delegation of Californians. He made a habit of wearing it. Source: UPC Scavenger

Abraham Lincoln Photos Elbow Book
August 9, 1863. After the month prior’s stunning victories, Lincoln had a right to expect a swift end to the war. In fact, he still didn't have a commander who would bring the fight to the enemy, and the war was only halfway done. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Abraham Lincoln Photos 1863 Gettysburg
The so-called "Gettysburg Portrait," taken by Alexander Gardner on November 8, 1863. In fact, this picture was taken at Gardner's studio on 7th and D in Washington. The Gettysburg Address would be delivered a few days later. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Abraham Lincoln Photos Penny Profile
February 9, 1864 was an important day for the dollar. During a session with Matthew Brady's assistant, Lincoln sat for several portraits; this one became the likeness used for the penny, and another went onto the $5 bill. Source: Wikipedia

Abraham Lincoln Photos Five Dollars
$5 Source: Pinterest

Abraham Lincoln Photos 1865
This image, taken on February 5, 1865 was never meant to stand alone. Instead, it was intended to serve as a study for an official oil painting. Nobody remembers the stupid painting. The photograph, however, is remembered for showing the awful toll the years had taken on Lincoln's face. As this picture was taken, Atlanta had been burned to ashes, Sherman's army had reached the sea and turned north, and Lee's dwindling army was running for its life . . . a run that would end near Appomattox Courthouse. Source: Vebidoo

Abraham Lincoln Photos Last Portrait
The last formal portrait. He's smiling a little here, as well he should. His second inauguration is a month away, the South has clearly been beaten, and things are going well for him. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Second Inaugural
The only known picture of Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural celebration. From his speech:
"[I]f God wills that [the war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.' With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."
Source: UPC Scavenger

Lincoln In State
The only known picture of Abraham Lincoln lying in state. Source: Civil War Talk

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.