By WILLIAM GRIMES
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 Libraryat 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.”