A.K. sends an old engraving on paper of Abraham Lincoln in oval form, bordered by scenes from his life. The bottom is printed “Photograph by MB Brady” with a Lincoln signature facsimile, also, “Engraved and published by JC Buttre, 48 Franklin Street, New York.”
Although this steel plate engraving is not worth much money, it is worth a great deal in historical meaning. The work exhibits the close relationship between two mediums: photography and print engraving; as an engraver would copy a photo (copyright not invented yet), the lithograph offered it to the newspapers. The first images of a great President were pioneered, as well as many images of popular American heroes of the Civil War era, including folk heroes of the Revolutionary times. Previously, Americans might not have recognized the face of a great hero. After images like A.K.’s in the mid-19th century, a celebrity face was everywhere. In these days of the ubiquitous faces of our Presidential candidates, we are immune to a time when a celebrity face was met only in person.
The engraver, John Chester Buttre (1821-93) had a distinguished career as a portrait engraver, copying from well-known artists and photographers, making over 3,000 engravings of Americans of political and military import. He tapped into a nationalistic cultural phenomenon, because although photography was “inverted” in the second quarter of the 19th century, the process was not affordable for middle-class collectors of American valor. And boy, did we collect famous portraits in the mid-19th century; Americans were proud of their heroes. Buttre’s fame began with a full-length portrait of our fifteenth president, James Buchanan (1791-1868), as well as a portrait of Martha Washington (1731- 1802) in 1858.
Capitalizing on the tenor of the Civil War era, when more men died in the Civil War than any other American conflict, Buttre specialized in Civil War heroes, especially the dead ones. Two percent of the population died in that war, the equivalent of 6 million men today. Deadlier still were the diseases of the war; mumps, chickenpox, and measles: two thirds of the Civil War dead perished from disease along.
Thus within sight of the specter of death there arose a strange mid 19th century sentimentality in the visual arts which glorified home, childhood, and religion. Buttre the engraver seized upon this current with images such as “The Happy Days of Childhood” and “Prayer in Camp,” some of his best-selling genre engravings. Greater still was his series of Lincoln portraits.
The Brown University Library has 168 images by Buttre; many picture Lincoln, etched from photos by the famous Civil War photographer Mathew B. Brady . Also among Buttre’s stable of worthies are Adm. Stringham (War of 1812), Brig. Generals Burnside and Don Carlos Buell (Mexican-American War), and Brig. Generals Fitz Henry Warren and Franz Sigel (Civil War). The names give an indication of the multicultural military in the early years. In the Civil War, for example, one in four regiments contained a majority immigrant fighting force. Buttre’s engravings reflect this diversity.
A.K.’s engraving is taken by Buttre from an original photograph by the foremost American war photographer, Mathew B. Brady (1822-1896), self-appointed official photographer for the Union Army. Brady captured the war from his horse-drawn “Whatsit Wagon” studio. His charisma and talent made him welcome on the front, a rare thing for the paparazzi these days.
Statesmen and heroes vied to sit for Brady, but the most famous sitter was of course Abraham Lincoln. His “Brady Lincoln” is the photo used for the engraving on our five-dollar bill. Other notables who sat for Brady were Jackson, Webster, Grant, Lee, Carnegie, and Barnum. Photographic images were collected on cartes-de-visite (calling cards), traded like baseball cards.
If you saw the movie Lincoln, you saw Brady’s images, most of which were shot with huge glass plates under difficult conditions. The Brady photos, with his colleagues Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan, changed the way we thought about war, slavery, prisoners of war ---and President Lincoln. A god was created in Brady’s images of Lincoln and McClellan at Antietam, Lincoln as he ascends the platform to speak at Gettysburg, Lincoln as the Grand Review marches past, and the hanged Lincoln conspirators. Brady’s “Lincoln portraits” live on, as A.K.’s has been saved for 150+ years. The value at auction, because this image was so popular, is $250.
Interestingly, J.B. Buttre’s work might have been forgotten except for his enterprising and uncommon businesswoman daughter Lillian C. Buttre, who published her dad’s work in three volumes, The American Portrait Gallery (1880-1).
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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