This section is from the book "The National Capitol. Its Architecture Art And History", by George C. Hazelton, Jr. Also available from Amazon: The National Capitol Its Architecture Art and History.
On the wall above the landing of the staircase is the much-copied painting by Frank Carpenter of New York, known as the Signing of the Proclamation of Emancipation. This picture, painted at the White House in 1864, represents the meeting of the Cabinet there, in the room set apart for such meetings, when President Lincoln read his Proclamation of the 22d of September, 1862. Lincoln is in the foreground, presiding at the head of the long table, in his left hand the great Proclamation, and in his right a quill pen, which, on this occasion, was truly "mightier than the sword." Behind the President, on his right, stands Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, by whom is seated Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War. Upon Lincoln's left sits William H. Seward, Secretary of State; while at the rear, in the center of the painting, sits Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy. On the extreme right, Edward Bates, Attorney-General, is also seated at the table; and of the two Cabinet officers standing together in the background, the" taller is Montgomery Blair, Postmaster-General, and the other, Caleb Smith, Secretary of the Interior.
When the artist first met President Lincoln, at a reception at the White House, he was welcomed with these words: " Oh, yes; I know; this is the painter." Then straightening himself to his full height, with a twinkle in his eye, the President added playfully: " Do you think, Mr. Carpenter, that you can make a handsome picture of me?" Carpenter describes his next interview with the Executive in this wise: "He received me pleasantly, giving me a seat near his own arm-chair; and after having read Mr. Ix>vejoy's note, he took off his spectacles, and said, ' Well, Mr. Carpenter, we will turn you in loose here, and try to give you a good chance to work out your idea.' Then, without paying much attention to the enthusiastic expression of my ambitious desire and purpose, he proceeded to give me a detailed account of the history and issue of the great proclamation. Having concluded this interesting statement, the President then proceeded to show me the various positions occupied by himself and the different members of the Cabinet, on the occasion of the first meeting. 1 As nearly as I remember,' said he, ■ I sat near the head of the table; the Secretary of the Treasury and the Secretary of War were here, at my right hand; the others were grouped at the left.'
" At this point I exhibited to him a pencil sketch of the composition'as I had conceived it, with no knowledge of the facts or details. The leading idea of this I found to be entirely consistent with the account I had just heard. I saw, however, that I should have to reverse the picture, placing the President at the other end of the table, to make it accord with his description. I had resolved to discard all appliances and tricks of picture-making, and endeavor, as faithfully as possible, to represent the scene as it actually transpired; room, furniture, accessories, all were to be painted from the actualities. It was a scene second only in historical importance and interest to that of the Declaration of Independence; and I felt assured, that, if honestly and earnestly painted, it need borrow no interest from imaginary curtain or column, gorgeous furniture or allegorical statue. Assenting heartily to what is called the ' realistic ' school of art, when applied to the illustration of historic events, I felt in this case, that I had no more right to depart from the facts, than has the historian in his record.
" The general arrangement of the group, as described by the President, was fortunately entirely consistent with my purpose, which was to give that prominence to the different individuals which belonged to them respectively in the Administration. There was a curious mingling of fact and allegory in my mind, as I assigned to each his place on the canvas. There were two elements in the Cabinet, the radical and the conservative. Mr. Lincoln was placed at the head of the official table, between two groups, nearest that representing the radical, but the uniting point of both. The chief powers of government are War and Finance : the ministers of these were at his right,— the Secretary of War, symbolizing the great struggle, in the immediate foreground ; the Secretary of the Treasury, actively supporting the new policy, standing by the President's side. The Army being the right hand, the Navy may very properly be styled the left hand of the government. The place for the Secretary of the Navy seemed, therefore, very naturally to be on Mr. Lincoln's left, at the rear of the table. To the Secretary of State, as the great expounder of the principles of the Republican party, the profound and sagacious statesman, would the attention of all at such a time be given. Entitled to precedence in discussion by his position in the Cabinet, he would necessarily form one of the central figures of the group. The four chief officers of the government were thus brought, in accordance with their relations to the Administration, nearest the person of the President, who, with the manuscript proclamation in hand, which he had just read, was represented leaning forward, listening to, and intently considering the views presented by, the Secretary of State. The Attorney-General, absorbed in the constitutional questions involved, with folded arms, was placed at the foot of the table opposite the President. The Secretary of the Interior and the Postmaster-General, occupying the less conspicuous positions of the Cabinet, seemed to take their proper places in the background of the picture".
" When, at length," continues the artist, " the conception as thus described was sketched upon the large canvas, and Mr. Lincoln came in to see it, his gratifying remark, often subsequently repeated, was, 1 It is as good as it can be made.'
" It is not too much to say that the enthusiasm in which the work was conceived, flagged not to the end. The days were too short for labor upon it. lighting at nightfall the great chandelier of the state dining-room, which was finally assigned me for a studio instead of the library, where the windows were shaded by the portico, the morning light frequently broke in upon me still standing pencil or palette in hand, before the immense canvas, unable to break the spell which bound me to it. ' We will turn you in loose here,' proved an ' open sesame ' to me during the subsequent months of my occupation at the White House. My access to the official chamber was made nearly as free as that of the private secretaries, unless special business was being transacted. Sometimes a stranger, approaching the President with a low tone, would turn an inquiring eye toward the place where I sat, absorbed frequently in a pencil sketch of some object in the room. This would be met by the hearty tones of Mr. Lincoln,—I can hear them yet ringing in my ears,—' Oh, you need not mind him; he is but a painter.' There was a satisfaction to me, differing from that of any other experience, in simply sitting with him. Absorbed in his papers, he would become unconscious of my presence, while I intently studied every line and shade of expression in that furrowed face. In repose, it was the saddest face I ever knew".