Sunday, February 12, 2012

“Mrs. Lincoln, I Presume? Well, as It Turns Out..”

What makes an artwork worthy of our admiration?  What qualities must it possess to be considered a part of our cultural heritage? In contrast, What is a fraudulent work of art? When considering these questions, it becomes clear that artworks cannot be evaluated solely based on aesthetics; indeed, for an artwork to be of particular value it must possess “authenticity.”  For years forgers and hoaxers have attempted to dupe the art world with their frauds.
Patricia Cohen explores this topic in her recent New York Times article, “Mrs. Lincoln, I Presume? Well, as It Turns Out …”. This case study involves the portrait supposedly depicting Mary Todd Lincoln and attributed to Francis Bicknell Carpenter, the distinguished painter who resided in the White House during Lincoln’s presidency.  According to its “documented” history, Mrs. Lincoln commissioned this portrait as a surprise for her husband.  President Lincoln, however, was assassinated before he received it.  The portrait was purchased by Lincoln’s descendants and later donated to the Illinois historical library in the 1970s.
While undergoing cleaning, however, it was revealed that both the painting and its story were false:  the portrait is of an unknown woman, and was created by an anonymous 19th century artist.  The deception, however, dates to the 20th century when Ludwig Pflum (Lew Bloom) painted over the portrait to pass it off as a portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln.  According to James Cornelius, curator of the Lincoln library and museum, “It was a scam to defraud the Lincoln family.”
It is clear that the artist’s intent was to deceive.  Bloom’s recasting of the portrait into “Mrs. Lincoln” included altering the woman’s facial features, painting over accessories, and adding a brooch with Lincoln’s picture.  He then fabricated the sad tale to go along with the painting and unjustly attributed the work to renowned 19th century painter Francis Carpenter.  Bloom even went so far as to attach a notarized affidavit attesting to the portrait’s false history.  It is even possible that this is an example of an artist exploiting history:  taking Lincoln’s assassination as an opportunity to commit this fraud. 
Fraudulent artworks have fooled experts and the public for years.  How do these fakes tamper with the public’s perception of art? What impact do they have on cultural history?  According to the Lincoln library and museum, having been restored to its original state the portrait of the now unknown woman has lost most of its monetary, and perhaps all of its cultural, value.  However, could it be that some people may find the portrait even more valuable given its tainted history?
Originally posted by Sally Johnson on

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