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University librarian finds drawings of Lincoln

Thomas Nast’s first rough sketches of Abraham Lincoln discovered in Hay by Edward Widmer

Renowned cartoonist Thomas Nast’s first rough sketches of Abraham Lincoln were recently uncovered at the John Hay Library by Edward Widmer, a historian, librarian and the former director of the John Carter Brown library.

The sketches were made by Nast in New York City in early 1861. New York was one of the last stops on Lincoln’s trip from Springfield, Illinois to Washington D.C. after his election as president, said Associate Professor of History Michael Vorenberg, who has studied Lincoln extensively.

“It is a really interesting moment to imagine,” he said. “We don’t have many pictures of Lincoln when he (was) president-elect. The real important reason is the coinciding of two very famous people — Lincoln and Thomas Nast,” he added.

Widmer, who discovered the sketches, explained that the sketches were done during a dangerous time in Lincoln’s life, as he was traveling in full view of the public amid several rumors regarding assassination attempts.

Widmer uncovered the drawings while conducting research at the Hay for his upcoming book on Lincoln. “I have been looking at Thomas Nast’s scrapbook for half a year,” Widmer said. He noticed the sketches tucked away on a side of the scrapbook that was slightly difficult to see.

Widmer described the pencil sketches as drawn very rapidly by Nast and successful in catching the essence of Lincoln’s face. “I think, as works of art, they are more exciting than his more finished drawings because they are more spontaneous and have more feeling,” he said.

These sketches occupy a unique place in Nast’s oeuvre: They are not as polished as his later works and seem to have been completed in a hurry. In addition, they feature close-ups of Lincoln’s face, a departure from Nast’s later emphasis on including other people in his portraits of the former president.

Nast’s scrapbook provides comprehensive insight into the artist’s creative process, said Holly Snyder, the curator of American Historical Collections and the History of Science Collection at the Hay. “It was one of his work tools,” she said. “He put everything in it. He pasted in photographs, original sketches and other sources of inspiration,” she added. The scrapbook belongs to the McLellan Lincoln collection, which was purchased by Brown alum John Rockefeller, Jr. in 1923, Synder said.

According to the library’s website, the Charles Woodberry McLellan Collection of Lincolniana comprises over 30,000 primary historical sources pertaining to Lincoln. The library also holds private secretary and assistant to Lincoln John Hay’s (1858) papers on Lincoln.

“The Lincoln collection is a piece of its time,” Synder said. “It is one of the best Lincoln collections in the country and is used by scholars, researchers and undergraduates.”


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