Two historic photographs — a newly discovered daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams, from 1843, and the famous “cracked plate” portrait of Abraham Lincoln, from 1865 — are highlights of the American Presidents exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington.
Adams (1767–1848), the sixth president of the United States, was the son of John Adams, the second U.S. president and a Founding Father of the country. The younger Adams was president 1825–1829, and was subsequently elected to the U.S. Congress, where he served for the rest of his life.
The postcard-sized, black-and-white portrait of Adams was taken when he was 75. “It is the earliest known surviving photograph of an American president,” said Ann Shumard, the gallery’s senior curator of photographs.
The daguerreotype was the first successful form of photography and still new when Adams sat for the portrait. It “was a game-changer that quickly saturated the popular culture,” Shumard said. “By 1840, photography studios began springing up across the United States.”
Adams embraced the innovation, and during his final years, he sat for several portraits. But his diary entries indicate that he was not impressed with the pictures — he deemed them “hideous” and “too true to the original.”
Soon after his portrait session in 1843, Adams gave the image to a fellow congressman, Horace Everett. The picture was believed lost until Everett’s descendants found it and sold it at auction. It was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery in 2017.
The great emancipator
A few steps away from Adams’ portrait is Alexander Gardner’s “cracked plate” photograph of Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865). It is “probably the most iconic image of a U.S. president ever made,” Shumard said.
Lincoln, the 16th president, came to office in 1861 as the U.S. Civil War began. Known as “the great emancipator,” he guided his nation through its worst constitutional crisis and abolished slavery.
Gardner’s photograph, taken in February 1865, is the last formal portrait of Lincoln before his death from an assassin’s bullet on April 15 of that year.
One of the picture’s arresting features is the jagged line that bisects the top of Lincoln’s head. This “cracked plate” effect was caused when the photographer’s glass-plate negative was mishandled and cracked, Shumard said. Only one print was made from the damaged negative, and the negative itself was discarded.
The “cracked plate” image has always invited speculation, according to Shumard.
Some viewers regard the jagged line on Lincoln’s head as strangely prophetic, anticipating the trajectory of the bullet that killed him. Others see the jagged line as a symbol of the North/South divide during the Civil War.
Today, the haunting portrait (faded to sepia tones from its original eggplant purple) is displayed only once a year, for two weeks at a time, to prevent further deterioration.
“This image has shaped posterity’s view of Lincoln, but it wasn’t seen in his lifetime and it didn’t gain currency until the 20th century,” Shumard said.
The museum, which is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its American Presidents exhibition, also just unveiled a new addition to its collection.
The large-scale painting of former U.S. President Barack Obama is by the artist Kehinde Wiley. Best known for his edgy portraits of African-American men, Wiley typically combines traditional and contemporary elements in his artwork.