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It's Abe--Honest!


You know this man: Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln. Sixteenth president of the United States, Great Emancipator and, to the point here, the face on the new $5 bill.

It's Abe, surely, but not the Abe you grew up with. It's not the Abe who has been on the five since World War I. That would be the contemplative philosopher king of the Lincoln Memorial, a man of intellectual gravity who wore the burdens of leadership in the heavy lines of his face, in the deep shadows of his eyes wherein one artist of the day saw "an inexpressible sadness."

Next time you're waiting in the checkout line, pull out a new $5 bill and introduce yourself to a subtly new Abe, an unburdened Abe, a 98-percent melancholy-free Abe. Meet Abe Lite.

The strain of Lincolnian sadness has been replaced by something else. A certain elan, you might say. Suddenly the left eyebrow is lifted in a manner evoking Claude Rains in "Casablanca." Suddenly the left corner of the mouth turns up just enough to make you wonder if A. Lincoln isn't morphing into George W.

You look at this Abe, you don't hear him saying: "The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here ..." You're more apt to hear: "Man, but that Gettysburg speech was good, wasn't it?"

You change an angle of lip, a shadow of brow, a turn of the head or cast of the eyes, and pretty soon, if you haven't lost the physical likeness, you've changed the persona. It's a subtle matter, but this is the nature of portraiture. A saintly face so easily turns shifty, a humble fellow turns haughty.

Abe Lite's been in circulation about a month now, part of the U.S. Treasury and Federal Reserve's continuing revamping of the paper money. As with the $100, $50, $20 and $10, the portrait on the $5 note has been changed, enlarged and shifted slightly to the left. Hidden security features have been added to foil counterfeiters.

In none of the other newly redesigned bills, however, does the new portrait convey a much different persona. With Abe, the difference is a combination of the photograph used as source material and the engraver's interpretation.

Frederick Voss, the senior historian at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, agrees that the new and old $5 bill evoke different personas. In his view, the new Abe suggests "a little more sense of force ... sort of an aggressiveness, a toughness, which we really don't associate with Lincoln, particularly in this later period."

True, Lincoln was a determined leader who carried on a very costly war. Still, Voss says, something in the new Abe is not quite what usually comes to mind when you're thinking Lincoln. He can't quite put his finger on the word.

A swagger, perhaps?

"Yeah, it's a good word," says Voss. "A swagger."

Tom Schwartz, secretary of the Abraham Lincoln Association and also the Illinois state historian, says the difference between the two Abes is a matter of gravity. As he sees it, the old one has it and the new one doesn't. Like the rest of the new money, the $5 seems to him "cartoonish," with "none of the character and dignity that you find in the original $5 bill."

The two $5 Abes are variations on a man whose demeanor in life was said to shift with remarkable swiftness. A Lincoln acquaintance, Dr. James Miner, is quoted describing Lincoln's face in repose as "unspeakably sad," his eyes "as expressionless as those of a dead fish; but when he smiled or laughed at one of his own stories or that of another then everything about him changed; his figure became alert, a lightning change came over his countenance ... I thought he had the most expressive features I had ever seen on the face of a man."

A sitting president

The owner of this most remarkable face on the afternoon of Feb. 9, 1864, made the short trip from the White House to the Pennsylvania Avenue studio of photographer Mathew Brady. That day, Brady's associate, Anthony Berger, made seven photographs of Lincoln. These included the portrait used as the basis for the new $5 bill, the profile used as the model for the U.S. penny and the portrait that appeared on the old five, the picture that the president's son Robert T. Lincoln considered "the most satisfactory likeness of him."

So why change it?

Jack Ruther, a bank note designer at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, says it was a matter of consistency. The portraits were changed in all the bill redesigns but that of Ulysses S. Grant on the $50. Ruther says there just were not enough good images of Grant to work with.

The same cannot be said of Lincoln, whose fascinating face was quite the object of photographic attention. The seven photographs Berger made that day were among 119 separate photographs of Lincoln by 31 different photographers recorded in a definitive account published in 1963 by Charles Hamilton and Lloyd Ostendorf.

The new $5 photo differs from the old in several respects. In the "old $5" photo, Lincoln is seated with his face and body at the same angle to the camera, his face cast down ever so slightly, his eyes set on the distance to the photographer's right. In the "new $5" photo, Lincoln's body is angled to the camera's left, while his face, lifted just a tad, turns the opposite way. The turn, however slight, conveys action and determination.

There's quite a bit of dark shadow beneath Lincoln's brow, on his left cheekbone and the left side of his mouth. This both obscures his features and softens them. In their commentary on the photograph, Hamilton and Ostendorf say the photograph reveals "just a faint suggestion of merriment in his sparkling eyes, as though a smile were about to ignite his masklike features."

A little cocky

On the bill, with the shadows removed in the interest of clarity, the lifted left eyebrow and upturn in the left corner of the mouth suggest a certain self-satisfaction, perhaps even irony. Darn if Abe doesn't seem just a bit cocky.

The engraver, William Fleishell, doesn't see it that way. He acknowledges taking "certain liberties" to make a clear image and to make the portrait stand out against the background, but doesn't figure he's rendered a very different Abe.

Fleishell says he cut the portrait into a steel plate in much the same way engravers might have done when the old Abe was put on the bill in 1914 and even as Albrecht Durer would have made his engravings 500 years ago. Fleishell worked in the same scale as the image you see on the $5 bill, using a magnifying glass and cutting the portrait in reverse. He says he worked with the Berger photograph and other Lincoln photographs, checking and rechecking the proportions, making test proofs as he went along. The job took more than 300 hours.

"I concentrated on the eyes in the new one," says Fleishell, trying to render them "almost wistful, almost as if he's staring off into the future."

A gaze of self-assurance, for sure. A new Abe for a digitized, genomed and all-knowing information age. Not necessarily the man who, two months after sitting for Berger's photographs, wrote to a Kentucky newspaper editor: "I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me."

Body language

Subtle changes in the position, tilt and gaze of Abraham Lincoln have created a strikingly different image of the 16th president on the new $5 bill. The faces on both bills are based on photos taken at the same portrait session in 1864.

Old $5: Lincoln's face and body are at the same angle to the camera (above), his face cast down slightly, his eyes set on the distance to the photographer's right.

New $5: Lincoln's body is angled to the camera's left, while his face, lifted just a tad, turns the opposite way. The turn, however slight, conveys action and determination. A lifted left eyebrow and upturn in the left corner of the mouth suggest self-satisfaction, even irony.

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