Acquisition of Rare Photograph of Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural

The Bowdoin College Museum of Art is proud to announce the acquisition of a rare vintage photograph of Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural. Acquired at auction in October and attributed to the Scottish-American photographer Alexander Gardner (1821-1882), it shows a large crowd gathered outside the east side of the U.S. Capitol March 4, 1861 to attend Lincoln’s swearing-in.

"The First Inaugural of Abraham Lincoln," March 4, 1861, salt print attributed to Alexander Gardner. Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

“The First Inaugural of Abraham Lincoln,” March 4, 1861, salt print attributed to Alexander Gardner. Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

The Museum will unveil this photograph for the first time at a special program Thursday, January 12, 2017.

Frank Goodyear, co-director, and Patrick Rael, professor of history, will speak about the image and its subject.

Only two other copies of this photograph are known to exist—now in the collections of the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution.

It is an important work not simply because of its rarity, but also for the moment that it depicts.

As the Civil War began less than six weeks later, it sheds light on a pivotal time in our nation’s history. Already seven states had seceded from the Union, and the atmosphere in Washington was tense, as rumors swirled of an assassination plot. During his speech that day Lincoln called for unity and stated a desire to address the differences that then divided the country.

This photograph helped to change how the public understood the Inauguration. While approximately 25,000 people witnessed the event that day, many more saw it after an engraving based on this photograph was published in the pages ofFrank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. The 1860 Inauguration was the first at which an image based on a photograph circulated widely.  Photography helped to give it a greater visibility and significance.

Of special interest to Maine, Senator Hannibal Hamlin of Paris, Maine, served as Lincoln’s vice president and was present that day. Winslow Homer was also in Washington then and created a double-page engraving of this same scene for Leslie’s rival Harper’s Weekly. Homer’s engraving will also be displayed at this program.

In 1861, Alexander Gardner was the chief photographer at Mathew Brady’s gallery in Washington. During the Civil War, Gardner broke new ground by exploring the documentary potential of photography.

His two-volume Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War (1866)—which included 100 photographs—was the first American book to use photographs alongside written text to relate a narrative. Whereas his photographic peers were largely working within the confines of their studios, Gardner was a trailblazer for taking his camera outdoors to photograph the wider world. We welcome you to see and learn more about this famous photograph of Lincoln’s First Inaugural on January 12.

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