By Ian Hunt
In 1930, the leadership of the Chicago & Illinois Midland Railway Company hit upon a novel concept for a new marketing campaign. It was decided that since the trains owned by the company passed within a few miles of the reconstructed historic village of New Salem, where Abraham Lincoln first ventured out on his own, that they would focus upon these humble beginnings for a series of promotional calendars.
Working closely with the leading historical experts and artists of the period, they selected a series of events revolving around Lincoln’s time in New Salem and later Springfield and these became the subjects of oil paintings. Each year, beginning in 1932 and running until 1955, a new scene and accompanying history were produced and the artwork was used for engraved reproductions that were printed as historical calendars to be distributed to employees, customers, and friends of the railroad.
Initially the artist selected was Fletcher Ransom. Born in 1870, he studied at both the School of the Art Institute of Chicago as well as the New York Academy of Art. As an illustration artist, his works appeared in publications such as Collier’s and McClure’s Magazines as well as the Saturday Evening Post. Ransom would create the first thirteen entries in this series of Lincoln calendars.
"Lincoln the Soldier" by Fletcher Ransom portrays Lincoln and his comrades leaving for service in the brief Black Hawk War of 1832. (ALPLM)
Following Ransom's death in 1943, Lane K. Newberry, who was born near Nauvoo, Ill., and was a distant relative of Joseph Smith, was brought in to paint three works in the series. Like Ransom, Newberry had also studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and many of his early works focused on the history of the Mormon church.
"Pioneer Industry" by Lane K. Newberry shows Lincoln trudging through the New Salem snow.
Finally, Reynolds Jones, a native of Springfield, was commissioned to paint the last eight works. A graduate of the American Academy of Art in Chicago, he had by the 1930s become well known for both magazine and advertising illustrations.
"Farewell to Illinois" by Reynolds Jones depicts Lincoln's speech as he left Springfield to assume the presidency. (ALPLM)
Following the production of each year’s calendar, the original artworks were returned to the company where most of them hung in the corporate office in Springfield for decades.
In early 2005, as the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum was preparing to open, the institution was approached by the now renamed Illinois Midland Railroad about the collection. Of the 24 works originally created, the company still owned 20 (the years 1932, 1934, 1935 and 1936 were missing) and generously offered to donate them to the ALPLM. In January of 2006, the railroad formally donated all 20 paintings in their possession to the ALPLM.
Since that time these works have been seen by museum patrons, researchers, and art enthusiasts and continue to remain accessible to the general public.
Ian Hunt is the ALPLM's head of acquisitions.