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The Great Emancipator – the first Subject in Alexander Gardner’s Washington, D.C. Studio on August 9, 1863, the Day Before it Opened to the Public
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ABRAHAM LINCOLN. Imperial photo from original Alexander Gardner negative taken on August 9, 1863, the day before the official opening of Gardner’s Washington, D.C. studio. Printed by M. P. Rice, from Gardner’s original plate, ca. 1901, with Rice’s copyright notice near bottom right. 13¾ x 16⅝ in. visible; framed 24¾ x 28⅝ in. Ostendorf pose O-71C. Though this just missed being printed in the 19th century, very few photographs of Lincoln of this rare size and clarity survive.

Inventory #24778       Price: $14,500

Historical Background

On August 9, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln and his personal secretary John Hay visited the new studio of Alexander Gardner, on the corner of 7th and D Streets, over Shephard and Riley’s Bookstore. Lincoln had promised to be Gardner’s first sitter and chose Sunday to avoid curiosity seekers while on his way there. The President posed for at least six photographs, including this one, which was one of four taken simultaneously with a multi-lens camera and a single glass plate. The images captured that day included both seated and standing poses.

Hay noted in his diary that the President “was in very good spirits. He thinks that the rebel power is at last beginning to disintegrate; that they will break to pieces if we only stand firm now.” The President was also “very anxious that Texas should be occupied and firmly held” in view of French intervention in Mexico that began in 1861 and later culminated in the installation of Maximilian as Emperor of Mexico in 1864. Only two months earlier, in June 1863, French forces had captured Mexico City, forcing the republican government of Benito Juarez to flee.

The same day he sat for this photograph, Lincoln had written to General Ulysses S. Grant about the recruitment of African American soldiers. Since he signed the Emancipation Proclamation seven months earlier, cooperative army officers and others had been recruiting free blacks and former slaves for the army. “I believe it is a resource which,” he wrote to Grant, “if vigorously applied now, will soon close the contest. It works doubly, weakening the enemy and strengthening us.” He also expressed his concern to Grant about re-establishing the national authority in Western Texas as soon as possible.”[1]

Alexander Gardner (1821-1882) was born in Scotland and emigrated to the United States in 1856, with an interest in photography. He began working for Matthew Brady and continued until 1862, when he established his own studio. Gardner initially specialized in large Imperial photographs. In 1858, Brady put Gardner in charge of his Washington, D.C. studio, where the beginning of the Civil War spurred a demand for portraits of soldiers leaving for war. Gardner served as a staff photographer under General George B. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, in 1862, and ended his work for Brady. He photographed the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam and developed photographs in his traveling darkroom. He also photographed several later battles of the Civil War, including Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and the siege of Petersburg. Gardner photographed Lincoln a total of seven times between 1862 and 1865. After publishing a two-volume photographic work on the Civil War in 1866 that did not sell well, Gardner turned from photography to help found an insurance company.

Moses P. Rice (1839-1925) was born in Nova Scotia. He and two of his brothers were photographers in Nova Scotia late in the 1850s, but by 1861, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he became an assistant photographer to Matthew Brady and to Alexander Gardner. Rice later opened his own studio, Moses P. Rice and Sons, in Washington, D.C., and operated it into the twentieth century Rice began selling photographs of Lincoln as early as 1865, and in 1891 and 1901 copyrighted images of the 16th President.


Some touch ups by pen, which is typical on a photograph of this size and age.

[1] Abraham Lincoln to Ulysses S. Grant, August 9, 1863, Roy P. Basler et al., eds., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 8 vols. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 6:374.

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