Americans love stories that reflect determined competition. Whether it is the baseball rivalry of the Chicago Cubs against the St. Louis Cardinals or ancient rivalries of Athens and Sparta, competition provides a dramatic element to any story. Artists are usually seen as solitary individuals who pursue their own muse. Nineteenth-century photographers and printmakers often shamelessly reproduced images from competitors and claimed it as their own. Less recognized are the collaborative efforts by artists that were typically driven by a profit motive. The story of The Last Hours of Lincoln illustrates how John Badger Bachelder worked to create for public sale an iconic scene of commemoration by using the services of photographer Mathew Brady, painter Alonzo Chappel, and printmaker Henry Bryan Hall, Jr.
The Civil War provided abundant opportunities for artists to capture or create images of the war and its military and civilian leaders through sculptures, photographs, paintings, prints, and illustrations in periodicals. The competition among artists to produce and then be the first to distribute new images of the war characterized much of the Civil War era. But the need to produce images often led to temporary collaborations. The artist Francis Bicknell Carpenter hired Mathew Brady to take poses of Lincoln in the White House as visual references for his painting First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln. Carpenter, a staunch antislavery man, wanted the scene to commemorate the greatest act of Lincoln’s presidency. He exhibited the painting in several major cities and had it transformed into a very popular steel engraving by Alexander Hay Ritchie. Abraham Lincoln was one of the first subscribers, ordering the $50 signed artist proof copy. Less expensive versions could be had for $25 and $10.
John Badger Bachelder, a New Hampshire artist, traveled to Washington, D.C., on the day Lincoln died, determined to create an iconic scene of Lincoln’s final moments. Knowing that the 47 individuals who visited the room during Lincoln’s final hours had come and gone throughout the night, Bachelder was not concerned that the small room could accommodate only a few people at a given time. The picture was not intended to be an accurate representation of Lincoln’s moment of death, but rather something of contemplation, representing those who presided throughout the death vigil. Bachelder wrote letters to every individual who spent time in the room during the night of April 14-15, and scheduled appointments for them at Mathew Brady’s studio. He requested that they wear the same clothing as they had worn that night. Bachelder conceived a design in his head and posed individuals in Brady’s studio to realize his composition. The photographs became points of reference for the painter, Alonzo Chappel, who created two different oil paintings of the scene. One, now at Brown University, appears to be the first study, while the final work is at the Chicago History Museum.
In addition to the paintings, Bachelder hired the services of engraver Henry Bryan Hall, Jr., to make steel engraved prints based upon the Chappel painting. Three subscription books survive, offering the prints in the following styles: $100 for a limited Artist Proof (200 signed copies); $60 for an India Proof; $35 for a Plain Proof; and $15 for a mass market print. The work was to be sold entirely through subscription. These subscription books each have 11 rare Brady session photographs pasted in the front. In all three, Robert Todd Lincoln, the late president’s son, signed up for the $100 Artist Proof copy.
In 1869, in a separate project, Bachelder published Isaac Arnold’s Sketch of the Life of Abraham Lincoln, a book largely derived from Arnold’s lengthy biography of Lincoln published three years earlier. The new frontispiece bore an engraving of Lincoln by Hall, published by Bachelder, and based upon a photograph by Mathew Brady — again showing the artistic interplay of these individuals. The end matter of the book contained endorsements of the artistic quality of the Hall engraving, along with order information for various sizes and pricings of the engraving through Bachelder’s publishing house. There were also descriptions for ordering Bachelder’s most famous artwork documenting The Battle of Gettysburg.
The Arnold book ended with a description of The Last Hours of Lincoln project. A small engraving of the scene, with a key to identify the 47 individuals, was part of the extended promotional matter, ending with endorsements of the project by such figures as J.K. Barnes, U.S. Surgeon-General; Francis Spinner, U.S. Treasurer; and John Hay, private secretary to Abraham Lincoln. A review reprinted from the Washington Sunday Herald claimed, “It is just such a work as, above all others, should be American property, for if ever there was a National picture, this is one.”
Despite all of Bachelder’s promotional efforts for The Last Hours of Lincoln, not a single copy from 1869 has turned up, which leads us to pose the question, ‘Why not?’ Isaac Arnold wrote to Bachelder on December 1, 1874, to inquire: “Is the engraving of the death of Lincoln finished? You know all my pictures were burned in the great fire here [in 1871] & therefore I am the more anxious to obtain more. If the engraving is finished please send to me at No. 104 Pine St., Chicago & oblige.” Clearly, Arnold could not remember if he had ever received a print. And, likely, he had not. Whether Bachelder did not approve of the finished work by Hall, or whether his ambitious Battle of Gettysburg project got the best of him, we will never know.
In a collection of Bachelder materials obtained a few years ago by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum through a generous gift from LaSalle National Bank, a discarded Hall print was among the items. This image was later distributed, in 1908, by M. David, who thereby published something that Bachelder did not intend for distribution.