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Abraham Lincoln last visited New Haven in March 1860, when, as a likely presidential candidate, he gave a speech on slavery. He is now set for a triumphal return.
The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University will announce Monday that it has purchased one of the largest private collections of 19th-century American photography, devoted primarily to Lincoln and the Civil War, from the Meserve-Kunhardt Foundation, run by the family that has collected and preserved the material for five generations.
The Meserve-Kunhardt Collection, with more than 73,000 items, includes 57,000 prints, as well as thousands of books, pamphlets, maps and theater broadsides. “It is of enormous value,” said James M. Cornelius, the curator of the Lincoln Collection at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill. “Without question, it has the largest holdings of images of Lincoln and his circle that we know of.”
Among the highlights are a large-format albumen portrait of Lincoln in 1863 by Alexander Gardner, a vintage print of Mathew Brady’s “Cooper Union” portrait of Lincoln, a Gardner print of Lincoln’s second inaugural that shows John Wilkes Booth in the crowd, and a glass negative of Brady’s portrait of Lincoln with his son Tad. The collection also includes other Lincoln artifacts, such as the library from his Springfield home and Lincoln family scrapbooks.
“This is not an area we had focused on,” said George Miles, the senior curator at the Beinecke Library. “But because the collection is so comprehensive, it allows us to go from being weak to remarkably strong in one acquisition.”
Peter W. Kunhardt Sr., a board member with the family foundation, directed by his son Peter W. Kunhardt Jr., said: “We knew the foundation could do a good job of preserving and cataloging the collection, but not for the long haul. It needs to be housed in an institution under better conditions.”
Since 2009, the collection has been stored at the art museum and library at Purchase College, part of the State University of New York. Six weeks ago it was moved to the foundation’s new offices in Pleasantville, N.Y., which also house the photographic archive of Gordon Parks.
The opening of the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, a research and conservation center on Yale’s West Campus, was a powerful incentive to place the collection with the university, as did plans to add a research center for photographic conservation, the Lens Media Laboratory. Because Yale has both a rare books library and an art museum, the material will be divided accordingly this fall.
Yale purchased the collection with support from the Rice Family Foundation, which brought the two parties together. “We’ve committed a very significant part of our acquisition budget to this,” said Mr. Miles, who declined to give the purchase price or the size of the acquisition budget. The Kunhardt family also declined to discuss the price paid for the collection.
It comes with a family story that begins on the battlefields of the Civil War. William Neal Meserve, a Union soldier, was wounded twice at Antietam and served in the Wilderness Campaign under Ulysses S. Grant, rising to the rank of major. Along the way, he kept a diary in a series of small notebooks.
“After the war, he suffered from what we would call post-traumatic stress,” Mr. Kunhardt Sr. said. “He was on track to become a dentist, but he lost it. He became a traveling preacher and deserted his family.”
In the late 1890s, Frederick Hill Meserve, William’s son, tried to re-establish a relationship. Writing to his father in California, he proposed a joint project. If his father would transcribe the diaries and Frederick would find the photographs to illustrate the text, which ended up filling two large volumes.
In 1897, at Bangs auction house on Lower Fifth Avenue, Frederick paid $1.10, sight unseen, for a package of 100 salt prints made in the late 1850s and early 1860s. It contained portraits of eminent figures like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Robert E. Lee, all in pristine condition. “That night I had my first experience of the sensation of intoxication, the only kind I have ever experienced, that comes with the possession of a rare find,” he later recalled.
The fever was stoked when he visited a warehouse in Jersey City that contained thousands of discarded glass negatives from Brady’s studio, most of them used to make the small, inexpensive portraits known as cartes de visite. The trove included seven life negatives of Lincoln.
He bought them all, more than 10,000 plates. Nearly 5,500 of them went to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington in 1981, including the famous “cracked plate” portrait of Lincoln, a one-off outtake by Gardner, one of Brady’s operatives. Taken on Feb. 5, 1865, the portrait has a horizontal line running across the top third of the photo, reproducing a crack in the photographic plate.
The Lincoln material seized Frederick’s imagination. He set the goal of acquiring and cataloging every Lincoln photograph in existence. In 1911, he published “Photographs of Abraham Lincoln,” a landmark work with 100 portraits. “It was the lodestar for understanding Lincoln’s visual presence,” said Mr. Cornelius, the Springfield curator.
Frederick’s Lincoln collection had already provided the image on the 1909 Lincoln penny and its photographs would later be used for the engraving on the $5 bill, the statue in the Lincoln Memorial and the giant Lincoln on Mount Rushmore.
To place Lincoln in context, Frederick began gathering photographs that would illustrate the era. In time, he amassed about 8,000 portraits in 28 volumes, starting with Lincoln’s cabinet and his political contemporaries, and expanding to include the entire officer corps of the Union Army (and all but three of the Confederacy’s), along with actors, writers and notables from all walks of life. He called it “an American national portrait gallery.” The family calls it “the opus.”
“He saved from utter destruction and loss thousands of glass-plate negatives and prints from Brady and other photographers of the era,” Mr. Cornelius said. “This, at a time when collecting Americana was a low-grade activity.”
Virtually anything that pertained to America in the 1860s made its way into the collection, including handwritten daily meteorological observations for Washington, compiled for the Smithsonian Institution. One day is missing: On April 15, 1865, the day Lincoln died, part of the entry reads: “This horrible transaction made such an impression on me that I neglected to record the temperature at 2 and 10 p.m.”
On the flip side of a carte de visite with the portrait of Booth, an unknown hand inscribed the following order: “Do recognize him somewhere and kill him.” The origin of the card is unclear, although William Meserve, in charge of a fort near Washington, took part in the manhunt for Booth and his accomplices the night of the murder.
Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt, Frederick’s daughter, worked closely with her father for years and made some key discoveries along the way. She found 600 volumes from Lincoln’s personal library in a used bookstore in Springfield and through a caretaker of Lincoln’s Springfield home she obtained his family scrapbooks. Dorothy was also a highly successful author of children’s books, including “Pat the Bunny.”
Succeeding generations have used the collection as the basis for nearly a dozen books and several documentaries, produced by Mr. Kunhardt’s company, Kunhardt Films. “The Photographs of Abraham Lincoln” has just been published by Steidl. “Living With Lincoln,” an hourlong documentary about the Kunhardt family and the collection, will be broadcast April 13 on HBO.
Jeff Rosenheim, the curator in charge of the department of photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, used the collection extensively for his 2013 exhibition “Photography and the American Civil War.” “There are archives that change what you think you know,” he said. “This is one of them.”
Five score and 18 years ago, Peter Kunhardt's great-grandfather began collecting photographs of Abraham Lincoln.
Frederick Hill Meserve was the son of Civil War veteran William Neal Meserve, who fought for the Union Army and was wounded twice at Antietam. Years after the war, Frederick started collecting battlefield photos and pictures of prominent figures, including Lincoln, to use as illustrations for his father's diary.
What began as a way to reconnect with his father turned into a lifelong calling, and Frederick Meserve became the foremost collector of Lincoln photographs and memorabilia in the country. His obsession with all things Lincoln was passed on to his daughter, Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt, and evolved into something of a cottage industry for the family.
Five generations later, "the collection," as the Kunhardts call it, is the focal point of "Living With Lincoln," a documentary premiering Monday on HBO.
"Everybody collects things," said five-time Emmy Award-winner Peter Kunhardt, who directed the film and serves as narrator. He's also Dorothy's grandson.
"In my family, they happened to collect Lincoln things," he said. "They never threw anything out, and each generation continued. It's why our house was overflowing with this material."
That material provided the Lincoln images used for the penny, the $5 bill and even Mount Rushmore.
Produced by two of his sons, Teddy and George, the film intertwines Lincoln history with Kunhardt family lore. Using home movies, photos, diaries, notebooks and the words of long gone relatives voiced by their descendants, "Living With Lincoln" gives viewers a different, human look at the iconic president.Buy Photo
A lock of President Abraham Lincoln's hair in the offices of Kunhardt Films in Pleasantville. Peter Kunhardt and his sons, Teddy and George, have created a documentary called "Living with Lincoln" from photos and memorabilia their family collected. HBO will broadcast the documentary Monday. (Photo: Mark Vergari/The Journal News)
"Growing up with all of this material, I think we all relate to him differently than most people do," Teddy Kunhardt said. "You go to the Lincoln Memorial and he's this huge, God-like figure. "But the reality is, he was just like us. He was a normal human being, and we're hoping this film will allow others to see him this way."
The film also chronicles the toll "the glorious burden" of preserving, maintaining and documenting the archive has taken on various Kunhardts through the decades. A few suffered from lung disease, from being cooped up in a hoarder's delight of damp, dusty rooms filled floor to ceiling with old documents.
Dorothy "Dot" Kunhardt was so obsessed that, on trips to Lincoln's home in Springfield, Illinois, she gathered spoonfuls of dirt from places she thought he may have walked on. She tracked down old men and women who were children when the Lincolns were their neighbors, even finding the family that adopted the Lincolns' dog.
Despite crippling bouts of depression, Dot Kunhardt was a noted Lincoln author and scholar, but was probably better known for writing "Pat the Bunny" and other children's books to bring much-needed income to the family.
The film is very much a Westchester project — it was filmed mostly in the attic of Peter Kunhardt's Chappaqua home. Oscar/Grammy/Tony award-winning composer Alan Menken, a New Rochelle native, wrote the major musical themes. The voiceover work was done at the Kessler Media studio in Katonah.
George Kunhardt said that convincing his father to narrate the film turned out to be one of the biggest challenges in the two-year project, which premiers the day before the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's assassination.
"Dad's a quiet, workaholic type, but we wanted this to be personal, so we we didn't let up until he agreed," he said. "I think it made a real difference."
While they're excited and a little nervous about the HBO premier, the Kunhardts are also dealing with the almost cathartic realization that the collection — all 73,000 items — will soon be removed from their Pleasantville offices. Earlier this month, it was announced the collection had been sold to Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library for an undisclosed price.
"It was a very difficult decision," Peter Kunhardt said, "particularly for me and my brother, Philip. The collection has been a big part of our lives for 60 years."
The family will always have access to the material, and Teddy Kunhardt vows that at least one more film will be made from it.
"We realized that it's time," he said. "Now the collection will be accessible to the public. That made the decision a lot easier."
In the collection
Here's a sample of some of the items in the Meserve-Kunhardt Foundation collection:
1. Lincoln's life mask
2. A lock of Lincoln's hair
3. A photograph of Lincoln's dog, Fido
4. Portraits of Lincoln's three sons
5. Civil War battle maps
6. Dried flowers from the Gettysburg battlefield
7. An Imperial Print of Lincoln before his Gettysburg Address
8. A photograph of assassin John Wilkes Booth at Lincoln's second inauguration