With Lincoln’s birthday coming up—an important day for the nation and for the Pasadena Public Library, which dedicated the Central Library on February 12, 1927—our patrons might be interested in knowing about an Abraham Lincoln painting that the Library once owned.
The painting was a portrait of the 16th president of the United States that was painted by noted artist William Cogswell, a New York native who later settled in the Pasadena area and opened the Sierra Madre Villa Hotel, one of the first resort hotels in what is now East Pasadena.
This portraiture was a copy of the original one that Cogswell painted for the White House. It was actually one of possibly sixteen copies that he made after his original painting won in a contest held by Congress. The prize was $3,000 (a handsome sum at that time!) and having the winning portrait hung on the wall of the White House. Cogswell’s painting is no longer on display but is in storage where it remains part of the White House collection. Here is what the Library’s copy probably looked like.
So how did the Pasadena Public Library end up getting a copy of this painting—a copy made by Cogswell no less—and whatever happened to it? In the May 1901 Monthly Bulletin (an early library newsletter), City Librarian Nellie Russ made a request asking “friends of the Library” to consider donating money to purchase a replica of Cogswell’s Lincoln painting.
“The three-quarter length portrait of Lincoln, by William F. Cogswell, painted thirty years ago for $3,000—the artist has made a copy for which he is asking $600. Will any friends of the Library subscribe this amount?” (Monthly Bulletin, May 1901)
Then in the June 1901 Monthly Bulletin, Miss Russ mentioned that Cogswell agreed to accept a “much smaller sum.” Maybe the original asking price was too high? Or, being a Pasadenan, maybe he felt compelled to lower it for the Pasadena Public Library.
In any case, the price drop was much welcomed and certainly appreciated by all. The citizens of Pasadena had answered the call from their beloved library and made financial contributions for the purchase of the painting. It was prominently displayed in the library on Raymond Avenue and Walnut Street until Central Library opened in 1927. It then hung on its wall for a short time and was then stowed away due to lack of suitable space for hanging it, according to a 1932 Los Angeles Times article. After sitting in storage for a few years, the painting was rediscovered in a loft, and it was loaned to the Civic Auditorium for display in 1932.
It was eventually returned to the Central Library, but whether the Library retained ownership of the painting at this point is uncertain. A few 1961 correspondences about the painting indicate that the Lincoln painting was in the collections of the Pasadena Historical Society, which at that time was working out of the Central Library. Its previous location was in a room inside the Civic Auditorium, where it operated from 1932 to 1958. Considering that the PHS was housed there when the painting was loaned to the Civic Auditorium, it is possible that the organization took possession of it after the loan period ended and brought it back to Central when it relocated there in 1958. The PHS moved to its current location on Walnut Street and Orange Grove Boulevard in 1970 and became the Pasadena Museum of History. There is very little information about the painting and its whereabouts after this time.
No one knows where this Lincoln painting is now…perhaps it’s still at the Central Library, left there when the Pasadena Historical Society moved out, and is sitting somewhere in a hidden storage loft awaiting to be rediscovered.
[Biographical miscellany of William F. Cogswell]. Pasadena and Vicinity Biographical Record (Binder CLE-COLE, R920). Pasadena Collection, Pasadena Public Library, Pasadena, CA.
Coppess, M. (2008, May 8). William Cogswell, famous artist and East Pasadena pioneer [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://eastofallen.blogspot.com/2008/05/william-cogswell-famous-artist-and-east.html
Coppess, M. (2008, September 6). Mystery of the missing Lincoln portrait [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://eastofallen.blogspot.com/2008/09/mystery-of-missing-lincoln-portrait.html
Death of one of original pioneers. (1903, December 26). Pasadena Daily News.
Rare Lincoln portrait found. (1932, February 8). Los Angeles Times, p. 4.
Russ, N.M. (1901, May). Hours, regulations, etc. Monthly Bulletin, 3(9), 3.
Russ, N.M. (1901, June). Hours, regulations, etc. Monthly Bulletin, 3(10), 3.