On the eve of President’s Day, it’s worth remembering that one of the most famous paintings of Abraham Lincoln, by one of America’s most famous 20th century artists, Norman Rockwell, began as … a Spokane bank advertisement?
Actually, it began as a $4,000 commission for the lobby of a Spokane bank. Only later would it show up on letterheads, logos and a handy jar opener.
The story of “Lincoln the Railsplitter,” now a $1.6 million museum piece, begins with Donald P. “Don” Lindsay, the CEO of Lincoln First Federal Savings and Loan.
Lindsay was “a sensitive intellectual,” in the words of his daughter, Karen Warrick of Spokane, and a huge supporter of the local arts. In 1963, he had already commissioned the work of many local artists for the bank’s under-construction downtown headquarters on the corner of Riverside Avenue and Lincoln Street, still known today as the Lincoln Building.
When it came to commissioning a signature image for the bank’s massive lobby, Lindsay figured, why not think big?
“My dad just plain wrote to Norman Rockwell and asked for a painting,” said Warrick, a business executive with ACRAnet Inc. in Spokane. “And Rockwell said, ‘Yes!’ ”
Lindsay and Rockwell had a mutual friend, John Reddy, a writer and former Spokane resident, so Lindsay may have been aware that Rockwell had just parted company with the Saturday Evening Post and was looking for commissions.
They settled on what seems like an incredibly low price. The $4,000 fee included, apparently, the charcoal study Rockwell drew as a preliminary guide.
Rockwell was enthusiastic about the project, saying that Lincoln was not only the greatest American, but also “the greatest model that ever happened.”
In 1964, Lindsay and his wife took a trip back east to meet the Reddys and have lunch with the Rockwells in Stockbridge, Mass. Rockwell took them into his studio and showed them his preliminary work on the painting.
(Reddy was clearly well-connected, because on the same trip, he took the Lindsays to a cocktail party at the home of Jack Paar, the TV host.)
Rockwell finished the work – a little late, because of the press of other commissions – in 1965. It was a monumental piece; at more than 7 feet, it was taller than Lincoln himself.
It depicts Lincoln as an athletic young man in his 20s, carrying an ax in one hand while reading a book in his other. The original title was “The Young Woodcutter.” Rockwell said he was inspired by passages in Carl Sandburg’s biography, “Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years,” about Abe’s time as a land surveyor and railsplitter.
Rockwell said he was impressed by Lincoln’s hunger for knowledge, which led him to “devour every book he could find,” even while out in the fields and woodlands of Illinois.
“I hope this painting might inspire the youth of this land to appreciate this man who believed so much in the power of education,” the artist wrote in a letter to Lindsay.
The painting was also destined to inspire Spokane bank depositors. It was unveiled in a ceremony on Nov. 4, 1965, in the Lincoln First Federal bank lobby.
“Lincoln the Railsplitter” was an immediate hit. The bank sent small prints to thousands of its customers, along with a reproduction of a letter from Rockwell. The bank also had permission to use the image as its logo, which is why it soon showed up on its letterhead and signs.
The bank’s image was soon linked so closely to Abe’s that Lindsay was inspired to start amassing a collection of Lincoln memorabilia, which grew to be the third largest Lincoln collection in the U.S., Warrick said. It included Walt Whitman’s handwritten poem, “O Captain! My Captain,” about Lincoln’s assassination.
The bank eventually mounted a mobile exhibit called the Lincolnmobile which toured the state. The exhibit included a signed print of “Lincoln the Railsplitter,” but the original was still safely installed on the west wall of the lobby.
Yet it was not to last. The bank, which had changed its name to Lincoln Mutual Savings Bank in 1976, was swallowed up by Washington Mutual Savings Bank in 1985.
“Lincoln the Railsplitter” was packed up and sent to Seattle, where it decorated the CEO’s office. It was no longer on public display.
“My dad must have been heartbroken,” said Warrick. Don Lindsay died in 2000 in Spokane.
Sometime before 1992, Washington Mutual decided to unload the painting. It was purchased by the billionaire and sometime presidential candidate H. Ross Perot for what Warrick believes was the sum of $225,000. Perot had a significant collection of Rockwell paintings.
Then in 2006, Perot put it up for sale through Christie’s Auction House in New York. It stirred a lot of interest, since Rockwell’s reputation as a serious artist has risen dramatically since his death in 1978.
Among the interested parties was the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio. The museum specialized in American artists, but had a glaring hole: It had no Rockwell paintings.
The bidding, on Nov. 30, 2006, quickly shot over the $1 million mark. When the gavel crashed down for the last time, the Butler Institute had purchased the painting for $1.6 million.
The museum’s treasurer was quoted as saying, “I was numb.” Louis Zona, the Butler’s director, said “it seems too good to be true.”
“Rockwell is the quintessential American artist and Lincoln is the quintessential American subject,” Zona told The Vindicator, a Youngstown newspaper. “… If ever a painting belonged in the collection of the Butler, this is the one.”
Warrick, who has given a number of slide-show presentations about her dad’s famous painting, said that one of her sisters wrote to the Butler and suggested, only partly seriously, that the painting “should certainly be housed in Spokane.”
The Butler, naturally, vetoed that idea since the painting is now one of the museum’s top attractions.
“Frankly, the painting is best where it is,” said Warrick. “Millions of people will be able to see it and appreciate it right there in the middle of the country.
“And I know that dad is pleased. He was a great CEO, but also an artist at heart. This legacy is perfect for him.”
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