One of the lesser-known artists of Abraham Lincoln was Freeman Thorp. Born in Geneva, Ohio, on June 16, 1844, Thorp developed an interest in art. On February 15, 1861, he took some cardboard and pencils to sketch the train that carried president-elect Abraham Lincoln to Washington, D.C. The ALPLM acquired the sketch in the 1950s.
Although only a lad, not yet 17 years of age, Thorp had ambition. Geneva was not a scheduled stop on the route, but Thorp got lucky. According to Thorp’s daughter, Sarah:
“… Lincoln’s Inaugural train was held for a half-hour or so at Geneva, Ohio, for some minor repairs. Thorp was at the station to see the train go thro; and armed, as always, with pencil and cardboard, he made the first sketch-in while Mr. Lincoln good-naturedly addressed the waiting crowd. Thorp was hanging by one long leg over the iron railing of the rear platform of Mr. Lincoln’s coach. After the sketch had been returned to him (in 1903 or 4) after its long burial in a barrel of waste papers in the Capitol basement, he spent long hours at various times in ‘re-touching’ the face.”
The “barrel of waste papers in the Capitol basement” refers to a time in the 1870s when Thorp was provided a studio “on top of the Capitol, and there for twenty years he worked.” If this family recollection is accurate, Thorp created the only artist’s portrait of Lincoln en route to Washington, D.C.
Thorp also wrote down his own notes for later reference. Likely he referred to them when he completed his Lincoln portrait for the United States Senate, which the federal government purchased for $2,000 in 1920. Clearly the pencil sketch begun in 1861 was referenced in the 1920 portrait. Here is Thorp’s 1861 description of Abraham Lincoln:
Hair dark brown Beard dark brown in front of the ears and at the ends but light brown from the ears down to the middle of the chin upper lip only shaved Eyebrows heavy Eyes blue gray deep set much in shadows but clear and well defined, complexion neither florid nor pale but dark a slight mole on the right cheek in no way disfigured his face figure tall and slim, not slender: but muscular features strong rugged expression earnest animated thoughtful with inherent kindness.
Lincoln described himself as having black hair and gray eyes, but those points are mere quibbles given the dim lighting that day, and given that Thorp was able to observe Lincoln only for a brief time.