Yesterday, I posted about about Carl Bersch and his painting, Lincoln Borne by Loving Hands on the Fatal Night of April 14, 1865. At 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.
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.
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.
They are both followed by the figures of Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris, the Lincolns’ guests at Ford’s Theatre that night.
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.
David Herold follows Booth’s course, but his attention is drawn to a premonition of the gallows that he will face for his crime.
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