Editor's note: The following Introduction from the catalogue for the exhibition Portrait of Douglas and was reprinted in Resource Library on August 21, 2008 with permission of the Freeport Arts Center. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Freeport Arts Center directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

Introduction: Enlarging a Little Giant

by Harold Holzer

 

In none of his autobiographical sketches -- and Stephen A. Douglas penned several of them in the years from 1837 to 1859 -- did he ever allude to his personal appearance. Abraham Lincoln, by contrast, got right to the point in his very first such life story -- which he prepared to help a Pennsylvania journalist create a campaign profile. Even as he apologized that "there is not much of it for the reason, I suppose, that there is not much of me," Lincoln managed to declare quite the opposite by almost boasting in the final paragraph: "I am in height six feet four inches, nearly," and "lean in flesh." [1]

The same of course, could not be said for his longtime rival in Illinois politics, and it is no wonder that Stephen A. Douglas preferred not to talk about himself in those terms. Douglas was, to be blunt, short and squat. In a sense, he was as ill-proportioned as "Long Abe," but in an altogether different way. Whereas Lincoln had extremely long legs and a rather shorter-than-proportional torso, not to mention a smallish head, Douglas had an enormous chest and "phiz," to use the colloquialism of the day, rendered odd-looking by a pair of stubby legs that seemed much too short to carry his massive trunk. Lincoln and Douglas not only occupied opposite sides of Illinois -- and later, national -- politics, but reverse sides of the coin physically as well.

That contrast never seemed more striking than when both men arrived in Freeport for their second senatorial debate on August 27, 1858, Lincoln wearing "a coarse-looking coat with sleeves far too short, and baggy looking trousers so short they showed his rough boots." Douglas, meanwhile, was "richly" dressed "plantation style:" wearing a ruffled shirt, a well-tailored blue coat with shiny buttons, and a wide-brimmed panama hat. Visitors were struck by Lincoln's ragged appearance. [2]

However homely "Honest Abe" may have been, however, the huge height difference gave Lincoln a distinct advantage over his 1858 Senate opponent: on the debate platform, standing side by side in parades, or merely presenting themselves to be sized up by prospective voters, Lincoln towered over his foe. There was no doubting that he was simply the more imposing. And when Lincoln added a stovepipe hat to his ensemble, the difference between the two became almost comical.

Still, Douglas knew how to compensate for his literal shortcomings: through both energy and animation. One woman who glimpsed him in action in the late 1850s described Douglas as "short, stout, and thick," but was dazzled by his constant "alertness and motion." Observed another such admirer with both candor and insight: "His figure would be an unfortunate one were it not for the animation which constantly pervades it."[3] Lincoln himself conceded that Douglas he was a formidable opponent indeed, noting that "where he had right on his side very few could make a stronger argument." [4]

Of course, the graphic arts of the mid-19th century were unable to show Douglas in motion or animation, and were powerless to render subjects making arguments, strong or otherwise. [5] In fact, the primitive pictorial media of the day could do little more than capture formal likenesses that romanticized physical flaws, or produce rowdy caricature that exaggerated physical shortcomings -- no pun intended. Thus, even as American cartoonists introduced Abraham Lincoln to the people as a giant scarecrow in lampoons designed to render him ridiculous, equally inventive caricaturists enjoyed presenting Douglas looking small enough to pass as a midget. Again: advantage Lincoln.

What is remarkable -- and until now, has been largely misunderstood -- is how strong a rival Douglas nevertheless was for Lincoln, not only on the campaign trail, but in the pictorial arts as well. Much has been written about Lincoln iconography -- a good deal of it by this writer -- and more often than not, Douglas has been treated as little more than a peripheral character who occupies but a minor place in 1860 campaign cartoons, usually languishing in his Republican opponent's large shadow. In one of the most infamous series of caricatures issued during that presidential race (and one of the few to focus principally on the Senator), Currier & Ives mercilessly mocked Douglas for traveling east to visit his ailing mother (and to campaign for president along the way), depicting him as a naughty, wooden-legged child (the joke was he was "on the stump"), ultimately earning a sound spanking from the national mother figure, Columbia, as a bemused Uncle Sam looks on. Another Currier & Ives cartoon crafted in the same spirit portrayed a giant Lincoln swallowing a miniature Douglas as if he were an oyster on the half-shell.

But history enthusiasts who focus only on this skewed record of cartoons would misunderstand the depth and reach of Stephen A. Douglas' actual image. Thanks to George Buss, Freeport's own modern resident "Lincoln," and a Douglas collector extraordinaire, that archive can now be appreciated more fully than ever. And it comes as a great surprise. George Buss' intrepid research and excellent taste compel us to re-examine the Douglas image, and it is more surprising than the experts have heretofore realized.

First, as the Buss Collection shows, the archive that constitutes the Douglas image is far larger and deeper than we suspected. There are simply more Douglas images than we have heretofore suspected. This publication marks a new beginning in understanding and appreciating this record.

Second, it is also clear from the Buss collection -- as well as from images owned by the Library of Congress, the National Portrait Gallery, and the former Lincoln Museum archive in Fort Wayne, Indiana -- that for all Lincoln's success, Douglas was famous first and famous longer: a subject for popular prints designed for display in the American home as early as 1854. Even more remarkably, these first graphic tributes, created no doubt in response to Douglas' emergence as the father of legislative compromise -- his Kansas-Nebraska Act passed Congress that year -- were produced in distant Eastern cities, not just in his home state of Illinois, attesting to his growing national fame.

Third, there are many more parallel prints of Lincoln and Douglas than hitherto suspected -- in other words, Douglas pictures produced at the very same time, and by the very same presses, as the more enduringly familiar Lincoln poses. For example, the New York lithographers Currier & Ives may be best known -- perhaps most widely misunderstood would be a better phrase -- as the printmakers who introduced Lincoln to American voters (true enough). But it is sometimes forgotten that they were non-partisan: out to sell prints, not market candidacies. Now it is increasingly clear that they also circulated their share of portrait prints of Douglas during the 1860 campaign, some of which were designed in precisely the same way they crafted their Lincoln images. Currier's chief eastern rival, the Kelloggs of Hartford, Connecticut, did much the same thing, as did engravers like New York's H. H. Lloyd and Ensign, Bridgman, and Fanning. Their collective output serves as a reminder that American printmakers were largely apolitical -- or at least multi-political -- eager to please audiences of all political persuasions by preparing prints for every taste, and every party. We've simply forgotten the Douglas pictures.

Fourth, the graphics remind us that Stephen A. Douglas thought of growing whiskers long before Abraham Lincoln did, and from both contemporary reports and pictorial evidence, it now seems clear that he raised and shaved beards the way other men bought and discarded clothes. Observers described him with a thick black beard as early as 1842, and period prints show whiskers sprouting yet again in the 1850s. By the time Lincoln grew a beard for good in November 1860, a decision historians have recalled as if it were a seismic shock, whisker-tampering may not have been such a big deal after all.

Fifth and last, we have failed until now to appreciate the depth of mourning that greeted Stephen A. Douglas' untimely passing in 1861. Much has understandably been written about the graphic output after the Lincoln assassination four years later, and certainly this massive artistic outpouring dwarfs the Douglas mourning material. But the Little Giant was clearly not forgotten by artists, photographers, and even sculptors when he died. He continued to remain a marketable commodity -- worthy of commemorative portraiture and statuary -- for the same reason Lincoln became a great artistic subject: because the public expressed a demand for images.

A particularly interesting item in the George Buss collection serves as a final reminder about the inextricable connections between the Lincoln and Douglas images through all their years of political -- and now, we know, pictorial -- rivalry. It is a stereo card of a statue of the Little Giant by Leonard Wells Volk. We chiefly remember Volk today as the artist who made the famous life mask of Abraham Lincoln, and used it as the model for a series of widely reproduced plaster and bronze busts of the 16th President.

But as the Buss stereopticon view shows, Volk regarded Douglas as an equally marketable commodity in 1861, when the defeated Presidential candidate, not the man who beat him, seemed the quintessential martyr for the Union -- dead after a heroically grueling speaking tour undertaken to try to reverse secession. It is an added irony that Volk, who later all but abandoned the Douglas theme to concentrate almost exclusively on Lincoln, was actually related to the Little Giant by marriage. Even family ties did not bind artists of the day to one party or the other, to one leader or his opponent -- not when market forces shifted.

"He is a chunky man and looks like a prize fighter, though I am not sure as his arms are long enough for that," snickered one journalist who observed Douglas on his final political speaking tour. But as the reporter quickly conceded: "He has excellent prize fighting qualities," including [p]luck, quickness and strength...avoiding his adversary's blows, and hitting him in unexpected places in return." [6]

The Douglas image has always been that of a plucky, unflinching bantam fighter, but it has largely been a word portrait, lacking the illustration it deserves. Period prints of Douglas -- which were, of course, more than mere illustrations, but actually treasured icons for home display or intimate camera studies meant for preservation in family albums -- originated in unexpected places, and judging alone from their number, boasted long-unappreciated depth and power.

In 1864, no less important a collector than Abraham Lincoln himself acquired a little carte-de-visite photo of Stephen A. Douglas. It is quite an unusual piece-because it bears the Little Giant's "autograph," along with the date. Even a tough character like Douglas would not have been able to come back from the beyond to sign a picture three years after his own death! The "signature" was actually the work of his widow, Adele, who also presented a carte of herself and the late senator's sons from his first marriage.[7] That such pictures were still in vogue near the end of Lincoln's presidency -- and that the President wanted one for his own album -- provides yet more evidence of the staying power of the Douglas image.

As all of his prints and photographs remind us, flattering and critical alike, Stephen A. Douglas was in fact a hero before Lincoln was, conversely a subject of pictorial attack before Lincoln was, and ultimately a martyr to the Union before Lincoln was. That Lincoln totally eclipsed him in both American history and American art is of course beyond debate. But that Douglas was as tough and durable a rival in the graphic arts as he was in the political arena comes as a truly illuminating surprise.

Rye, New York
August 2008
 
 

1 Robert W. Johannsen, ed., The Letters of Stephen A. Douglas (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1961), 56-58, 102-103, 444-446, 469-471; for Lincoln's remark see Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 8 vols. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953-1955), 3:512. The autobiographical sketch was written on December 20, 1859.

2 These period recollections were printed in Harold Holzer, ed., The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The First Complete, Unexpurgated Text (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 88.

3 Quoted in Robert W. Johannsen, Stephen A. Douglas (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 206-207.

4 Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Fehrenbacher, Recollected Words of Lincoln (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 371.

5 This essay focuses on popular prints, but photographs of the day (the process was still in its technological infancy) were no more capable of capturing news events; portraits were rigidly posed in the studio, and candid news photography was all but unknown.

6 Johannsen, Stephen A. Douglas, 779.

7 The cartes-de-visite are in the Lincoln Museum collection, long housed at the now-shuttered museum in Fort Wayne, Indiana, their future disposition unknown at this writing. For reproductions, see Mark E. Neely Jr. and Harold Holzer, The Lincoln Family Album (orig. pub. 1990; rev. ed., Carbondfale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 2006), 81-82.

 

About the author

Harold Holzer, one of the country's leading authorities on Abraham Lincoln, co-chairman of the United States Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and currently Senior Vice President for External Affairs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He is the author of several books relating to the era of Abraham Lincoln.

 

About the exhibition

The exhibition A Portrait of Stephen Douglas: Selections from the George Buss Collection, on view August 23 - November 1, 2008 at the Freeport Arts Center, was planned as part of Freeport's celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates.  It is a companion to "The Political Career of Stephen A. Douglas" on exhibit at the Stephenson County Historical Society. (right: Charles Loring Elliott, Stephen A. Douglas, c. 1840, 25 1/2 x 31 inches. Collection of George Buss)

This exhibition offers a historical look at the art of portraiture through various portrayals of Stephen A. Douglas within the collection of Freeport resident, George Buss. In anticipation of the Sesquicentennial Celebration of the 1858 debates between Lincoln and Douglas, this exhibition offers visitors an opportunity to discover the impact the development of photography had on portraiture, especially like those of national figures like Douglas. Whether you are a history buff or a photography enthusiast, this special exhibition has something for everyone to enjoy.

Before photography, in order to have the likeness of a person rendered in a permanent medium, one had to be able to afford the hiring of a professional artist to paint a portrait, which took at least several weeks to complete. The development of photography opened the doors to less expensive and relatively quick ways of capturing the likeness of an individual in a fixed image. The ability to reprint these images a practically indefinite number of times also helped to usher in a new era of portraiture available to all, instead of only the elite.

Works selected for the exhibition include both more expensive oil paintings, as seen in an early oil on canvas of Douglas attributed to noted portrait artist, Charles Loring Elliott and examples of less expensive methods of portraiture through various photography techniques. Mr. Buss' photography collection includes early examples of daguerreotype, silver plate photography and stereoscopes, all very popular.

 

 

(above: Lily Tolpo, Stephen Douglas, bronze sculpture, 1990, #4/150, 11" high. Collection of George Buss)

 

Resource Library editor's note:

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Sarrah Hammon, Visitor and Business Services Manager at the Freeport Arts Center, for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

RL readers may also enjoy

and from TFAO's Topics in American Representational Art:

 

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Freeport Arts Center in Resource Library.


Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2008 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved