James Sullivan Lincoln

Inducted: 2012
Born: 1811
Died: 1888

James Sullivan Lincoln was Rhode Island’s premier portrait painter of the mid-nineteenth century and was acclaimed by his peers as the “Father of Rhode Island Art.” Unlike Rhode Island’s famed Gilbert Stuart, who was nationally recognized as the portraitist of the American founders (see appendix), Lincoln painted mainly Rhode Island places and personalities, including many of the “makers” profiled herein.

Lincoln was born on a farm in Taunton, Massachusetts, on May 13, 1811, the oldest of the six children of Sullivan and Keziah Lincoln. (Taunton was distinctive in that it had been founded in 1639 by Elizabeth Poole, a year after another woman, Anne Hutchinson, established the Rhode Island town of Portsmouth with her followers.) James was orphaned while still in his teens. Still, he soon traveled eighteen miles westward to cosmopolitan Providence, where he first became an apprentice to the engraving firm of Horton & Hidden and then to Providence portraitist C.T. Hinckley. While working with Hinckley, Lincoln discovered his talent for painting, especially portraiture. In 1832, he began a sixty-year career, producing over four thousand painted and photographic images. His oils, crayons, and photographs were the media he used to create and preserve the faces of nineteenth-century Rhode Islanders, recording his progress from 1837 to 1887 in a handwritten logbook of his commissions, now preserved at the Rhode Island Historical Society Library.

Lincoln received numerous commissions to depict local men, women, and families during the course of six decades, and he did so by rendering faithful likenesses guided by his creative instincts. It has been said that his calm and objective temperament allowed him to paint both those he admired and those he did not. Not only did this attitude comport with his temperament, but it also enabled him to paint politically incompatible clients. Lincoln’s contemporary subjects included such Rhode Island Hall of Fame inductees as Samuel Slater, Zachariah Allen, John Howland, William Read Staples, Henry Barnard, Wilkins Updike, Elisha Dyer II, Ambrose Burnside, William Sprague II, Amos Chafee Barstow, and John Russell Bartlett. His portraits of fourteen Rhode Island governors adorn the walls of the statehouse. In addition, Lincoln painted copies of such earlier Rhode Island notables as the Reverend James Manning (1738–1791), the first president of Brown University, and General William Barton (1748–1831), a Revolutionary War hero.

Amazingly, the man who revealed and preserved on his canvasses the faces of so many Rhode Island leaders of his era is not well remembered himself. None of the standard biographical volumes containing entries detailing the lives of nineteenth-century Rhode Islanders includes a profile of Lincoln. Had he not signed his canvasses, he would have remained almost anonymous despite the lofty title conferred on him posthumously.

Lincoln was not known to be active outside the field of art. Still, at the end of his long career, he joined with four younger artists—Edward Bannister, Charles Walter Stetson, George W. Whitaker, and Sydney Richmond Burleigh (all Hall of Famers)—to form the Providence Art Club in 1881, with Lincoln as its first president.

This quiet family man, praised by contemporaries for his “gentle and loving nature,” possessed a modesty that belied his stature as the premier portraitist of Rhode Islanders. He lived in various modest Providence dwellings with his wife, Rosina (whom he married in 1844), and their daughter, Ellen, the subject of one of his most admired portraits. Lincoln died in Providence on January 19, 1888. A year after his death, the Providence Art Club commissioned a bust of Lincoln by visiting Italian sculptor Appolonj that still graces the organization Lincoln helped to create. Among those profiled herein, Lincoln is unique in that his brief biography is illustrated by his self-portrait, the original of which is on display at the Providence Art Club.

James S. Lincoln was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2012.

For further reading:
The Makers of Rhode Island, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley, The History Press, Charleston, SC., 2012.

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