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Illinois Gov. Mansion's Portrait Of Mary Todd Lincoln Deemed A Fraud

By Amy Cavanaugh in News on Feb 12, 2012 9:30PM

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In a story that sounds like something out of a Patricia Highsmith novel, the Lincoln Library and Museum announced this weekend (which happens to be the 203rd birthday of Abraham Lincoln) that a portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln hanging in the Illinois Governor's mansion isn't of the former First Lady at all.

The painting, which has hung in the mansion for 32 years, was purportedly painted by Francis Bicknell Carpenter, an artist who lived at the White House for six months in 1864. The story went that Lincoln asked Carpenter to paint her picture to surprise her husband, but the President was assassinated before she could give it to him. The painting was discovered in 1929, and Lincoln’s descendants bought it and donated it to the state historical library in the 1970s.

It was recently sent out for cleaning, which is when art conservator Barry Bauman discovered that it wasn’t a portrait of Mrs. Lincoln. As he cleaned the painting, a brooch with Abraham Lincoln’s face on it was replaced by a cross necklace, and it was clear that the face was of a completely different woman.

The painting really is from the 19th century, but it’s of an unknown woman and by an anonymous artist. At some point in the late 1920s, Bauman says that painter and con man Lew Bloom got his hands on it and tweaked it to look like Mrs. Lincoln. The New York Times has more details:

Mr. Bloom concocted a story to accompany his handiwork, saying that Mrs. Lincoln surreptitiously approached Mr. Carpenter while he was at the White House working on his 15-by-9-foot painting, “The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation,” which hangs in the Capitol. She had planned a party, he said, where she would give the portrait as a surprise to her husband.

But, as the story went, after John Wilkes Booth shot the president at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865, the distraught and impoverished first lady asked Mr. Carpenter to dispose of it. Mr. Carpenter, Mr. Bloom claimed, sold it to a wealthy Philadelphia family, the Neafies, who in turn gave it to Mr. Bloom’s sister Susan, in thanks for her nursing a relative through a long illness.

Mr. Bloom attached a notarized affidavit attesting to this fabricated history on the back of the painting before exhibiting it as a “never-before-seen-portrait” in 1929 at Milch Galleries in Manhattan. “Bloom knew he could get away with it, for all of the individuals mentioned in the affidavit were dead,” Mr. Bauman said. “The smoking gun,” he explained, was that Mr. Bloom’s sister had been only 5 when the Neafie relative died.

But it seems like this discovery should have been made years ago. After the Library acquired the painting in the late 1970s, they sent it to conservators at the Art Institute of Chicago, who noticed some odd things about it but attributed it to a heavy-handed retouching job.

The painting won’t be returning to the mansion but may take up residence in the Library. The Library will be holding a lecture to discuss the painting on April 26.

Check out the Times' interactive feature that shows how Bloom fixed the painting.