You shake your head no and tell me paintings don’t talk?
Ask an artist. Paintings talk, of course they do; you just have to be listening extra hard to hear.
In my case, if you don’t listen carefully, all you’ll see is a nice picture of Mary Todd Lincoln. A painting of President Abraham Lincoln’s wife that was reproduced in both National Geographic and The Chicago Tribune. A piece of work so fine that it was used as the front cover of Carl Sandburg’s 1932 book on Mary Todd Lincoln. In fact, even the New York Times, announcing the painting’s discovery in 1929, assumed it was Mary Todd Lincoln in the painting. Historians fell in line. Nodded their heads, too.
And because everyone had switched off their listening and started talking, saying “Oh! What a lovely portrait of The President’s wife,” no one heard me speak from the very same canvas prison surrounded by that frame, no one heard me, the actual painting, say, “This painting does not depict Mary Todd Lincoln.” The painting and the story that goes with it is a fraud. It’s a con, set up to defraud the heirs of Abraham Lincoln.
The real woman in that painting is me.
How did it happen? How did I come to speak from the flat oil plane of my eternal home?
Start with Ludwig Pflum. Now Ludwig could talk—you might know him by another name he gave himself, Lew Bloom? Among others. When he died, it was said he ‘dabbled in oil paintings.’ But that isn’t even the beginning of the story of Ludwig. My Ludwig was a boxer, a circus clown, a jockey and, if I were to believe even some small trace of what he told me about all those nights he spent out on the road away from me, he played the vaudeville circuit many a night in some small town, long after the evening sun went down while I sat at home and waited.
Ludwig could charm. And I had no idea what was coming when he told me he would make me live forever in his painting. Of course I loved the idea. Who wouldn’t want to live forever? Especially a spirit like me, forever in place on the outskirts of life.
There was a part of me that wanted so badly to believe everything Ludwig said; sometimes I almost did.
I had no idea that his game was to hoodwink the poor descendents of the great man Lincoln and his deeply suffering wife. And I most certainly had no idea that he would use the picture he painted of me, the picture he painted for me, to fleece the Lincoln family for money.
Who am I? In 2012, when this story came out for anyone to hear, I was called “an unknown woman.”
But if you need to give me a name, call me Jenny. I’m not telling you that’s my birth name. Living with Ludwig, names somehow lost their importance. What’s important is my story…having seen so much history now, here from my frame, I know what happened.
I was on the wall for 32 years in the governor’s mansion in Springfield, Illinois. The signature on my canvas? Francis Bicknell Carpenter, a great painter of the day. So great that he even took up residence for six months in the White House with the Lincolns.
But it was my Ludwig, not the great painter Carpenter, who took the picture–the one he promised me would make me live forever–and turned it into a portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln. Ludwig altered my face, brush-stroked away this and that, added a brooch with the President’s picture. And suddenly I was hidden in my own frame. Not completely. But I was no longer alone.
To the world I had become Mary Todd Lincoln, and because Ludwig never knew when to quit, he added a story to accompany this new, second version of the painting that used to be me.
Ludwig’s story—a key part of his con game—was that Mary Todd herself had commissioned the painting. But then came Ford’s Theater and that fateful night when her husband was shot, and the President never saw the painting. Ludwig concocted an elaborate story of how it changed hands until it came into those of his sister, Susan, after the last “owner” died.
Ludwig believed he could make the story ring true because everyone in it was dead. And the Lincoln family was an easy target, with the hard times they had suffered. But, never good with details, Ludwig could never keep his dates straight–in his story, the last owner of the painting died when Ludwig’s sister Susan was only five. A little slip that always made me smile.
Still the painting came back into the Lincoln family’s hands and stayed there until 1976, when Lincoln’s last living descendent gave my portrait to the state of Illinois.
After the gift to the state, the painting was examined at the Art Institute of Chicago, and the depths of Ludwig’s fraud was revealed.
That the portrait was originally me, was finally revealed.
And now I speak.
Looking back on my years with Ludwig, I always knew he was a charlatan. I knew he was up to no good, and I never said anything. I stayed with him, because with Ludwig, I could dance on the fringes of a life. Never really joining in, always on the outskirts. It wasn’t an easy life–just once if I could have stopped to chat with the other women in the market, perhaps joined a church, maybe even been a teacher–but I was destined to remain outside those circles. After I left my earthly body, I heard it said that I was gentle, a trusting soul, and I suppose that’s true.
I’m here, still on the outer edge of everyone else’s lives–but now, from my home on canvas, I can see and hear what others can’t.
And now, if you keep listening, if you listen very hard, you can hear me telling all the stories told, by the painter who painted me, by the man who made me someone I wasn’t, by the family who honored the woman I was supposed to be, by all the people who have stood and gazed at my face while they spoke of their own lives.
Like some sort of street corner spirit, I’m always telling stories, now.
Because while my Ludwig was a charlatan…he helped me live forever, after all.
The source for this story was a February 11th 2012 piece in the New York Times by Patricia Cohen. All of the names and events are true. Except of course for Jenny and her story. That one we can only wonder about. The actual name of the woman in the painting is unknown.
Original publication of this piece was in fictionique as “An Unknown Woman”