Madison's rare Lincoln painting on its way to National Portrait Gallery in D.C.
MADISON — A celebrated 19th-century painting of Abraham Lincoln that hung for 80 years on the wall of the borough's council chambers is on its way to Washington D.C. and a long-awaited national audience.
The rare life-size portrait − meticulously restored in 2021 by the Hartley Dodge Foundation − was packed up by a specialized art-transport company Tuesday and will arrive in the nation's capitol well ahead of President's Day weekend events at the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery.
The unveiling is scheduled for Feb. 10 with foundation and Madison officials to be in attendance as invited guests.
Story continues after gallery.
"They are planning a big celebration and we'll all be a part of that," Mayor Robert Conley said.
Historians at the National Portrait Gallery are excited about the opportunity to hang the Lincoln next to the historic 1796 "Lansdowne" portrait of George Washington by George Stuart. The last time those paintings were seen together was in Philadelphia in 1876 during the United States' centennial celebration.
"What I look forward to most is standing in the Presidential Gallery, seeing the Landsdowne Washington, who created our union, and seeing Lincon standing just as tall," said Mindy Farmer, a historian at the Gallery. "It's just a thrill for me."
Philanthropist Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge brought the painting to Madison, including it among a variety of fine artworks in the Hartley Dodge Memorial Building, which she commissioned for use as Madison's borough hall in 1942. The nonprofit Hartley Dodge Foundation oversees the building and its contents and manages the art collection.
On Tuesday, a team of specialized movers from Crozier Fine Arts took down the 9-foot-tall Lincoln and its heavy frame and placed it into a wood box originally built for its 2021 restoration.
"It was in great shape, but it needed restoration by someone who really knew what they were doing," said Hartley Dodge Foundation Trustee Ann MacCowatt. The work was done "centimeter-by-centimeter," she said.
The restoration removed a heavy varnish and decades of tobacco smoke, revealing stunning details in the painting, including a globe that had been rendered barely visible.
Farmer described the refurbishment as "top-notch."
"We're so fortunate to have this partnership with the Hartley Dodge Foundation," she said. "They've taken great care of it. They've hired the world's foremost experts. I know it will be dazzling for our visitors to see."
The Lincoln, painted by Dutch artist WFK Travers, carries its own history lesson, experts said. Started before and Lincoln's assassination but completed after it, the picture includes a dropped black glove in the lower left − a symbol used in Victorian-era portraits to signal the untimely death of the sitter, according to foundation experts.
Other emblems of the Lincoln presidency featured in the painting include a sculpture of an unshackled slave and a copy of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution
In a presentation to the Madison council on Jan. 9, MacCowatt explained the painting would return to Madison for at least two years after the five-year loan. She added that the foundation has no current plans to sell the artwork.
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Farmer, the historian, said the portrait will hang in Washington with a sign thanking the foundation and crediting "the borough of Madison, so they will be front and center in the portrait gallery."
The Hartley Dodge art collection in Madison previously included a marble bust of Napolean that was confirmed in 2015 to have been produced by French sculptor Auguste Rodin. The foundation eventually sold the bust to a private museum on the Mediterranean island of Corsica for $8 million after it was loaned for a time to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, borough officials said.
In the case of the Lincoln, the foundation has gone to elaborate lengths to not leave an empty wall in the room for the next five years. On Tuesday, the moving company arrived with a precise digital reproduction, including a similar frame. The reproduction was created using a series of photos taken of the original portrait after restoration − a single photo would not provide sufficient resolution. Computer software was then used to stitch the photos together.
The movers struggled with the painting at first. The boxed portrait turned out to be too large to fit into the elevator of the Hartley Dodge Memorial, forcing the crew to carry it down the building's double staircase instead. They estimated the painting, frame and box weighed in excess of 300 pounds.
Mayor Conley hopes the replacement provides similar inspiration as the original did for both the public and his fellow elected leaders.
"He sets a tone for that room," Conley said of Honest Abe's image. "Looking into the Lincoln portrait, knowing what he means to this country, that's what that painting has meant all these years."
William Westhoven is a local reporter for DailyRecord.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
This article originally appeared on Morristown Daily Record: Madison NJ rare Lincoln portrait sent to DC National Portrait Gallery