Assassination of Lincoln by Howard Hill

Yesterday, I posted about about Carl Bersch and his painting, Lincoln Borne by Loving Hands on the Fatal Night of April 14, 1865At the time of Lincoln’s assassination, Bersch was living across the street from Ford’s Theatre and made sketches of the chaotic scene after the assassination. He used those sketches to paint this eyewitness image of the event.

Borne by Loving Hands - Carl Bersch

While working on that post I came across another painting that shares the same subject matter. In 1872, artist Howard Hill painted his own version of the wounded President being carried across Tenth Street. His painting is called, Assassination of Lincoln, and it is currently owned by the Albany Institute of History and Art.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Howard Hill was not present in D.C. on the night of Lincoln’s assassination and therefore his painting is not based on eyewitness sketches like Carl Bersch’s painting. Still it is clear that Hill did his research and when composing this piece. Hill’s painting includes the detailed figure of not only the wounded Abraham Lincoln but also shows grief-stricken Mary Todd Lincoln.

Assassination of Lincoln by Howard Hill Mary Todd and Lincoln closeup

They are both followed by the figures of Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris, the Lincolns’ guests at Ford’s Theatre that night.

Assassination of Lincoln by Howard Hill Rathbone and Harris closeup

While both Bersch’s painting and Hill’s painting show Lincoln being carried across the street to the Petersen boardinghouse where he would later die, the biggest differences between them are the secondary scenes they contain. In the darker corner of Bersch’s painting (which will hopefully be more visible in the restored painting) there is a small scene of celebration marking the end of the Civil War. In his letter home, Bersch mentions that his first sketches on April 14th captured the parades and jubilation that were occurring below his balcony. Bersch still used these sketches when completing his final painting and combined two these contrasting images, one of celebration and one of sorrow, into the single painting. Lincoln Borne by Loving Hands is not centered  on Lincoln but on the American flag, which continues to fly over everything, good and bad.

Hill’s painting, on the other hand, does seem to center more on the figure of Lincoln and the men carrying him. But our eyes are also drawn to the top right corner of the painting where a different scene is playing out. Hill depicts the horseback figures of David Herold and John Wilkes Booth fleeing from the tragic scene. Booth is riding away when he seems to look back at his handiwork. As he does this a legion of demons reach out to him as he effectively rides into their grasp and into hell.

Assassination of Lincoln by Howard Hill Booth closeup

David Herold follows Booth’s course, but his attention is drawn to a premonition of the gallows that he will face for his crime.

Assassination of Lincoln by Howard Hill Herold closeup

Strangely this gallows shows the execution of five people rather than the four that actually occurred. Perhaps one of the bodies is meant to symbolize Booth’s death as well.

Howard Hill’s Assassination of Lincoln shares a similar theme with Carl Bersch’s Lincoln Borne by Loving Hands but the compositions differ in their focus and details. The inclusion of the celebratory revelers and the focus on the American flag in Bersch’s painting evokes the prospect of hope in our darkest times, while Hill’s visions of doom for the assassins emphasizes the importance of justice. Taken together, these two paintings demonstrate the complex feelings that emerged after Lincoln’s assassination.

Additional facts about the artist, Howard Hill

Howard Hill was born in England in 1830. In 1851, he married his wife, Ann Patmore, in London. Hill always considered himself an artist and normally recorded himself as such on census records. However, to make ends meet, he would also work as a house painter, his father’s trade. In 1858, Hill brought his family over to America. The Hills would live in Yonkers, NY and Hoboken, NJ. Hill originally got a job with Currier and Ives as one of many nameless English artists who created the iconic prints that so captured the spirit of America. He left this job after a short while, likely unhappy with the day to day life as a menial worker. In his own paintings, Hill was very fond of painting birds. His most common images feature ducks and quails in scenic landscapes, but he also enjoyed painting farmyard scenes as well. In 1865, four of Hill’s bird paintings were exhibited at the National Academy of Design, which was a prestigious opportunity. Sadly, true success never found Hill. He continued to paint and sell his paintings to make ends meet. Hill apparently painted Assassination of Lincoln in 1872, which was a subject quite different from most of his work. Whether it was commissioned or a piece Hill completed on his own is unknown. It was owned by an American Legion Post in Albany before it was donated to the Albany Institute of History and Art in 1961. It’s ownership prior to the American Legion Post is unknown. When a financial depression began in 1873, Hill  took to visiting the homes of well to do farmers, offering to paint scenes of their farm and livestock. He also used his six children to help him create an assembly line of painters. Howard and each of his children would each complete a select part of a painting allowing him to effectively mass produce paintings to sell. Though financial difficulties caused Howard to drink more, he was instrumental in teaching all of his children the art of painting. In 1886, Howard lost his wife and artist son within a span of four months. This increased his depression and for the next year he lived the life of a vagrant, moving from boardinghouse to boardinghouse and trying to get painting commissions for money. Howard Hill eventually died on March 6, 1888, likely from a stroke. He was buried in an unmarked grave next to his wife in Yonkers.

Though Howard Hill never achieved fame for his work as a painter, it seems that he did pass on a considerable talent. Howard’s daughter, Mary Ann “Nancy” Hill, learned how to paint from her father and she would pass that love of painting down to her son. That boy, Howard Hill’s grandson, was the great American painter, Norman Rockwell. Though Rockwell never knew his grandfather (Hill died 6 years before Rockwell was born), he still felt his grandfather’s work influenced him. Rockwell was quoted as saying, “I’m sure all the detail in my grandfather’s pictures had something to do with the way I’ve always painted. Right from the beginning I always strived to capture everything I saw as completely as possible.”

Other work by Howard Hill

Albany Institute of History and Art
The biographical information on Howard Hill comes from American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell by Deborah Solomon

Categories: History | Tags: , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

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11 thoughts on “Assassination of Lincoln by Howard Hill

  1. missbellatrix

    Great post! I had no idea this painting existed. I quite like it and it would be amazing to see it in person. Also, I loved that you pointed out Booth and Herold – that’s a very important aspect of the painting too.

    • I also really like this painting, Mary. I’m not sure if it’s on display in Albany but I hope it is for others to see in person.

  2. Eva Lennartz

    Great posts on both paintings, Dave!! I wonder why Booth rides into the light in this one – is that what he thought he did? (Or a premonition of the burning shed?)

    • Eva,

      To my eyes, the light has a red hue to it, so perhaps Booth is riding straight into hell? The demons beckoning him seem to suggest that.

  3. Laurie Verge

    I also enjoyed seeing that Howard Hill’s version of Clara Harris seems to confirm that the discovery by Hallam Webber a number of years ago of a different photo of the lady is accurate. Pay close attention to the formation of Clara’s mouth in this painting compared to the profile photo that Hallam found.

    The surprise ending that Howard Hill was Norman Rockwell’s grandfather was also a pleasant history lesson.

  4. What a wonderful surprise! Great post – and great painting. It’s too bad that it’s not better known. I, too love the fact that Clara Harris and Rathbone has been added into the scenerio. I also absolutely love the fact that he emphasises both Booth and Herold in the other “dreamscape scene”…..

    Thanks, Dave for another great history lesson!

  5. David Herold and John Wilkes Booth fleeing the scene together reminded me of what Thomas Harbin told GATH in an 1884 interview. Harbin said:

    “Harold, I think, was at the mouth of the alley on F street, seated on his horse, when Booth, after killing the president, dashed out of the alley, and they rode together through F street to Judiciary Square, and then went down to Pennsylvania Avenue and over Capitol Hill.”

    Most books I have read have Booth and Herold meeting around Soper’s Hill in Maryland and not riding together through the streets of Washington. Oldroyd mentions a sighting of Booth riding near the Capitol, and he was apparently alone. I always thought there was a 5 to 10 minute gap between when Booth and then Herold arrived at the bridge (per Cobb).

    Anyway, what Harbin told GATH was the first time I had read that Herold may have been in the alley waiting for Booth to come out of the theater.

    • Roger,

      Until presented with a bit more evidence, I’ll stick with Cobb and the idea that Booth and Herold were not together.

  6. Rich Smyth

    Cool story and history lesson!

  7. Seward R. Osborne

    I find Hill’s painting interesting for several reasons. Laurie, you are spot on regarding Clara Harris. Note too, although I think it from his photograph, that Henry is in uniform. I know most think not, however I am still among those who question whether he was or not!
    Also, just because it is interesting, Norman Rockwell’s grand uncle Sgt. George S. Rockwell was killed in action during the Battle of Stones River.

  8. Seward R. Osborne

    Will the real Major Potter step forward? At Ford’s Threatre the night Booth shot Lincoln, Henry Rathbone enlisted the aid of a Major Potter. Does anyone have conclusive proof as to who this man was?

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