It's Abe--Honest!

Uncle Sam updates the face on the $5 bill, turning out a more upbeat Lincoln

July 04, 2000|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

You know this man: Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln. Sixteenth president of the United States, Great Emancipator and, to the point here, the face on the new $5 bill.

It's Abe, surely, but not the Abe you grew up with. It's not the Abe who has been on the five since World War I. That would be the contemplative philosopher king of the Lincoln Memorial, a man of intellectual gravity who wore the burdens of leadership in the heavy lines of his face, in the deep shadows of his eyes wherein one artist of the day saw "an inexpressible sadness."

Next time you're waiting in the checkout line, pull out a new $5 bill and introduce yourself to a subtly new Abe, an unburdened Abe, a 98-percent melancholy-free Abe. Meet Abe Lite.

The strain of Lincolnian sadness has been replaced by something else. A certain elan, you might say. Suddenly the left eyebrow is lifted in a manner evoking Claude Rains in "Casablanca." Suddenly the left corner of the mouth turns up just enough to make you wonder if A. Lincoln isn't morphing into George W.

You look at this Abe, you don't hear him saying: "The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here ..." You're more apt to hear: "Man, but that Gettysburg speech was good, wasn't it?"

You change an angle of lip, a shadow of brow, a turn of the head or cast of the eyes, and pretty soon, if you haven't lost the physical likeness, you've changed the persona. It's a subtle matter, but this is the nature of portraiture. A saintly face so easily turns shifty, a humble fellow turns haughty.

Abe Lite's been in circulation about a month now, part of the U.S. Treasury and Federal Reserve's continuing revamping of the paper money. As with the $100, $50, $20 and $10, the portrait on the $5 note has been changed, enlarged and shifted slightly to the left. Hidden security features have been added to foil counterfeiters.

In none of the other newly redesigned bills, however, does the new portrait convey a much different persona. With Abe, the difference is a combination of the photograph used as source material and the engraver's interpretation.

Frederick Voss, the senior historian at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, agrees that the new and old $5 bill evoke different personas. In his view, the new Abe suggests "a little more sense of force ... sort of an aggressiveness, a toughness, which we really don't associate with Lincoln, particularly in this later period."

True, Lincoln was a determined leader who carried on a very costly war. Still, Voss says, something in the new Abe is not quite what usually comes to mind when you're thinking Lincoln. He can't quite put his finger on the word.

A swagger, perhaps?

"Yeah, it's a good word," says Voss. "A swagger."

Tom Schwartz, secretary of the Abraham Lincoln Association and also the Illinois state historian, says the difference between the two Abes is a matter of gravity. As he sees it, the old one has it and the new one doesn't. Like the rest of the new money, the $5 seems to him "cartoonish," with "none of the character and dignity that you find in the original $5 bill."

The two $5 Abes are variations on a man whose demeanor in life was said to shift with remarkable swiftness. A Lincoln acquaintance, Dr. James Miner, is quoted describing Lincoln's face in repose as "unspeakably sad," his eyes "as expressionless as those of a dead fish; but when he smiled or laughed at one of his own stories or that of another then everything about him changed; his figure became alert, a lightning change came over his countenance ... I thought he had the most expressive features I had ever seen on the face of a man."

A sitting president

The owner of this most remarkable face on the afternoon of Feb. 9, 1864, made the short trip from the White House to the Pennsylvania Avenue studio of photographer Mathew Brady. That day, Brady's associate, Anthony Berger, made seven photographs of Lincoln. These included the portrait used as the basis for the new $5 bill, the profile used as the model for the U.S. penny and the portrait that appeared on the old five, the picture that the president's son Robert T. Lincoln considered "the most satisfactory likeness of him."

So why change it?

Jack Ruther, a bank note designer at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, says it was a matter of consistency. The portraits were changed in all the bill redesigns but that of Ulysses S. Grant on the $50. Ruther says there just were not enough good images of Grant to work with.

The same cannot be said of Lincoln, whose fascinating face was quite the object of photographic attention. The seven photographs Berger made that day were among 119 separate photographs of Lincoln by 31 different photographers recorded in a definitive account published in 1963 by Charles Hamilton and Lloyd Ostendorf.

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