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Monumental Lincoln Deathbed Oil Painting by James Burns, 1866
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“the picture...ought to be placed somewhere for public exhibition.”

New York artist James Burns depicts the “Death of Abraham Lincoln” on April 15, 1865, in the Petersen House, across 10th Street from Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. Mary Lincoln is prostrate with grief, leaning over Lincoln. Twenty-seven other figures are shown surrounding the bed, including the Lincolns’ oldest son Robert, members of the cabinet, Vice President Andrew Johnson, several doctors, Members of Congress, and others in various stages of shock and grief, along with military surgeons. The room was only 9½ by 17 feet. Lincoln had to be laid diagonally across the bed with his head propped up to allow him to breathe more easily. Only a few people could fit at any time, but everyone shown had visited at some point during the night.

[LINCOLN ASSASSINATION]. “Death of Abraham Lincoln,” oil on canvas, 1866. “J. Burns N.Y. 1866” at lower right. 72 x 48 in. Framed to 77.5 x 54 in.

Inventory #26752       Price: $75,000

Believing Lincoln could not survive the carriage ride back to the Executive Mansion, physicians determined to move him out of the theatre into a nearby house. Henry Safford suggested William Petersen’s boarding house across the street from Ford’s Theatre. Safford, a tenant there, directed them to a room at the end of the first-floor hall.

James Burns’ “Death of Abraham Lincoln” carefully portrays 28 onlookers crowding around the President as the light of a new day streams in from a window. Mary Lincoln is weeping over the president. At far right, Attorney General James Speed and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton converse, likely about the hunt for the assassin. Standing at near left is Vice President Andrew Johnson, with Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles seated below. General Henry Halleck stands at left center, conversing with an unidentified man. Surgeon General Joseph Barnes is at the head of the bed. The man seated in the chair by Lincoln’s head may be presidential secretary John Hay. Everyone pictured actually had been present at some time during the night of April 14-15, though in much smaller groups, probably no more than six at a time.

The “Art Gossip” column of the March 23, 1867, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper includes a story on Burns and this painting: “At No. 643 Broadway, in a quaint old studio at the top of the building, occupied by an artist named James Burns, there is to be seen a collection of pictures—the accumulation of years—and the subjects of which embrace a wide and varied historical range. These have all been painted by Mr. Burns himself, who does not appear to have taken any steps for placing them before the public. Many of them are large compositions from ancient Mexican, as well as modern American history, and are well worthy of the inspection of connoisseurs. The latest picture finished by Mr. Burns has for its subject the ‘Death of Abraham Lincoln.’ The martyred President is lying upon his deathbed, surrounded by many members of his family and administration. There is much excellence in the grouping and perspective in the picture, which ought to be placed somewhere for public exhibition.”[1]

James Burns (ca. 1810-1877), born in Scotland to James and Ann Burns, was an artist in New York. In 1849, he painted the “Apotheosis of George Washington” / “Washington Crowned by Equality, Fraternity, and Liberty” (13 by 11½ feet), which was exhibited in New York and the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, before selling at auction in New York in April 1860 and now lost. Between 1850 and 1855, Burns painted portraits and lived with his mother and brothers in New York City. From at least 1866 to 1870, Burns lived and had a studio at 643 Broadway. In February 1878, auctioneer Robert Somerville of New York City sold “the entire collection of over 150 Oil Paintings, belonging to the estate of the late James Burns, artist.”[2]


  • October 21, 1919, American Art Association, The Literary and Artistic Properties of the Late Evert Jansen Wendell (To Be Sold at Unrestricted Public Sale By Order of Mr. Wendell’s Executors and for the Benefit of Harvard University), Seventeenth Session, lot 4815;
  • Graham Gallery, New York;
  • November 14, 1991, Christie's East, New York, American Paintings, Drawings, Watercolors and Sculpture, lot 41 (as “Lincoln's Last Moments”);
  • December 15, 2021, Collection of Louise Taper; Bonham’s and Butterfield, New York, lot 67.


Other Scenes of Lincoln’s Death Bed
One of the earliest prints of the scene at Lincoln’s deathbed appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper on April 29, 1865. “The Dying Moments of President Lincoln, at Washington, Saturday Morning, April 15,” drawn by Albert Berghaus, who had visited the Petersen House immediately after the assassination. Eighteen named eyewitnesses are shown.

A small deathbed scene was copyrighted by Currier and Ives on April 26, 1865, followed by two more versions. Similar scenes by other printmakers followed before artists painted more detailed scenes. In 1866, John H. Littlefield published his engraving of the “Death-Bed of Lincoln. April 15th 1865,” which pictured 25 eyewitnesses.

Alexander Hay Ritchie, who previously engraved Francis B. Carpenter’s painting of Lincoln’s first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, painted and then engraved the most famous of the deathbed scenes, showing 26 onlookers identified in a published key. Surprisingly, he did not include Mary Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. Ritchie visited Washington shortly after the assassination to make sketches of the room, its furniture, and the men who were present at some point during the night. However, in early April 1866, a fire destroyed Ritchie’s “life-like painting of the ‘Death of President Lincoln,’ embodying twenty-seven portraits, together with the steel plate of it, which was two-thirds done, having been in the hands of the engraver for eight months.”[3] The total losses were estimated at $20,000, twice his insurance coverage. Ritchie “was compelled to begin his work anew,” and by late July 1866, he was almost done with the recreated painting.[4] It was exhibited in Washington in early 1867 and Boston in October 1868. An engraving, measuring 32½ x 21½ inches, was published by 1869.

Alonzo Chappel’s “The Last Hours of Lincoln,” at 52 x 89½ inches, includes 47 mourners. In March 1867, he visited Washington D.C. to retouch his painting before it went to the engraver. Chappel convinced most of his subjects to be photographed in a specific pose for the painting, identifying the subjects in a published key that accompanied exhibitions of the painting.[5]

[1] Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (New York, NY), March 23, 1867, 3:2.

[2] The Atlas (New York, NY), September 16, 1849, 2:8; The Evening Post (New York, NY), October 11, 1849, 3:9; The Daily Globe (Washington, DC), February 19, 1850, 3:2; The Press (Philadelphia, PA), April 10, 1860, 4:8; The New York Herald, February 4, 1878, 2:3; Phoebe Lloyd Jacobs, “John James Barralet and the Apotheosis of George Washington,” Winterthur Portfolio 12 (1977): 135.

[3] The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 9, 1866, 4:4.

[4] The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (NY), July 23, 1866, 2:3.

[5] Harold Holzer and Frank J. Williams, Lincoln’s Deathbed in Art and Memory: The “Rubber Room” Phenomenon (Gettysburg, PA: Thomas Publications, 1998), 15-34.

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