Abraham Lincoln’s stop in Geneva was not on the agenda.
Nevertheless, en route to his inauguration, on Feb. 15, 1861, Lincoln spent 30 minutes in Geneva because the train required some minor repairs.
For 17-year-old Freeman Thorp, Lincoln’s minor inconvenience was a major break. Thorp, who was already at the station to watch the inauguration train pass through town, was equipped with a pencil and piece of cardboard. When the president walked onto the rear platform of his coach and began to address the crowd, Thorp climbed onto the iron railing of the president’s car, inch as close as he dared to the president, and went to work making a sketch. Thorp also jotted down a “descriptive delineation”:
“Hair dark brown Beard dark brown in front of the ears and at the ends but light brown from the ears down to the middle of the chin upper lip only shaved Eyebrows heavy Eyes blue gray set much in shadows but clear and well defined, complexion nearly florid nor pale but dark a slight mole on the right cheek in no way disfigured his face figure tall and slim, not slender: but muscular features strong rugged expression earnest animated thoughtful with inherent kindness.”
In 1879 Thorp revisited his sketch and notes about the president’s appearance on that dreary afternoon in Geneva 18 years earlier. Working in his Washington, D.C., studio Thorp that year began his portrait of Lincoln, a composite that drew upon his first-person observations and sketches, as well as interviews and photographs.
“I studied him very carefully ... memorizing his expression and how he looked when animated,” Thorp would later write to the Joint Committee on the (U.S. Senate) Library, which purchased Thorp’s Lincoln painting for $2,000 in 1920.
According to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum website, Thorp’s Geneva sketch is evidently the only live sketch that was done of Lincoln as he traveled to Washington in February 1861. The painting that was conceived by the sketch hangs in the Senate wing of the U.S. Capitol and bears, in both in the lower and upper right-hand corners, the artist’s signature, “Thorp.”
This talented artist was born in Geneva on June 16, 1844, to Dennis and Clarissa D. Thorp. Dennis Thorp is credited as being the city’s first mayor. At least one biography, however, states that Squire Thorp, a justice of the peace, was his father.
Freeman nearly died at birth. Squire was out on business and the local midwife was ill when Clarissa went into labor. As it came time for Clarissa to deliver the child, there was a knock on the door — the local circuit rider, Freeman Woodcock, was paying a visit at an opportune time. He ended up delivering the baby, and the family named it “Freeman Woodcock Thorp” in the pastor’s honor.
Freeman grew up to be a tall, bright lad who used his spending money for pencils and cardboard. When his father finally took notice of his son’s artwork, he declared “I think the boy is doing something worthwhile.” Squire even spoke a word or two of prophecy about his son, noting that “There have been men who made this sort of thing pay and very well indeed.”
A few decades later, his son would be paid $1,500 for a single portrait of Henry Cabot Lodge, a new record for an American artist.
Shortly after his encounter with Abraham Lincoln at the railroad station, “Freem” Thorp enlisted in the Union Army without his parents’ permission. An expert horseman, Thorp saw service as a scout in Missouri and the Ozarks. On one occasion, he saw a group of Union soldiers heading toward a water hole where the water was brackish and poisonous. There was no time to warn them, so Thorp rode over on his horse and drew his gun on the men.
That was grounds for court martial, but when the general realized that Thorp took the action to save their lives, he commented, “There’s officer stuff in him. He’s got guts to jump regulations. I’ll remember him.”
Grant did remember Thorp — he gave him and another soldier the dangerous mission of carrying an important secret missive from their camp in Tennessee to Secretary of War Stanton in Washington, D.C., A 1,000 miles later, Thorp collected his reward. Stanton asked him if there was any favor he could do for him, and Thorp said he wanted to be as near as possible to Lincoln when he gave his address at Gettysburg Nov. 19, 1863. Standing 10 feet from the president as he made his historic address, Freeman Thorp completed his second sketch of the president.
Thorp could have stayed in the Army and become an officer, but he mustered out Sept. 3, 1864. Upon his return to Geneva, Thorp married Orlenna Eggleston. The couple had four children: Nellie, Clark, Ann and Sara Elizabeth, who also became an artist.
Thorp’s older sister, Ruby, was a studio photographer, and Freeman joined her in that venture. It appears that Freeman simultaneously developed technical skills in photography and artistic skills in painting from 1865 to 1869, when he departed Geneva to open a portrait studio in Bucyrus, Ohio. All indications are that Thorp was self-taught as a painter, relying upon “artist’s manuals” for his training.
His fame spread quickly. Thorp was named an honorary member of the Berlin Society of Artists in 1870 and elected vice president of the National Photographers Association the following year.
Through his friendship with President Grant, Thorp was invited to Washington and provided studio space in a loft above the Senate wing of the U.S. Capitol. He also had a studio on East Main Street in Geneva, and throughout the 1870s and 1880s, Thorp divided his work between the studios.
In 1872 Thorp received a commission from Grant to paint portraits of every member of his family. Thorp also had permission to attend legislative sessions so he could paint portraits of the lawmakers “in action.” By 1873, the “History of Country Artists” listed Freeman Thorp, age 29, as “standing securely in the front ranks of American artists.”
In addition to painting presidents, Thorp did portraits of Chief Justice Salmon Chase, Robert E. Lee, Horace Greeley and generals Sherman, Sheridan and Gordon. One art historian estimated that Freeman painted some 600 portraits of political figures.
There are seven of his portraits in the House wing of the Capitol, more works than there are by any other single artist. In addition to the Lincoln portrait in the Senate wing, there is a Thorp painting of Isaac Bassett there.
Bassett was a deeply esteemed Senate employee who was appointed as the Senate’s second page — at the age of 12! His father, Simeon, was a Senate messenger at the time and brought his son to work with him. Isaac would recall later in his life that Daniel Webster asked the boy to climb on his lap and said “My little man, would you like to be made a page?”
Isaac Bassett was promoted to messenger in 1838 and assistant doorkeeper in 1861. He attended nearly every legislative session until his death in 1895.
In 1876 members of the Senate commissioned a painting of Bassett as a “testimonial of their personal regard and of their high appreciation of the intelligence, the promptness, the accuracy and the conscientious fidelity” of his service. The presentation was a surprise to Bassett, which raises the question of how Thorp managed to do a portrait without Bassett sitting for it. The selection of Thorp for the job answers the question, for the artist most likely used a photograph to work from, as well as his personal observations of the well-known Senate figure.
Not content to just paint and hobnob with politicians, Freeman Thorp joined their ranks. Ashtabula County voters elected him as state representative in 1878. He held the position for four terms.
Thorp also served as commander of the Ohio National Guard, a position he held until 1885, when he also left politics to concentrate on his work at the Geneva studio. He made his living painting portraits of deceased persons, using photographs and his recollections of the subjects.
By the mid-1890s, Freeman Thorp’s health was failing, and the artist decided a change of environment was in order. He moved to Minnesota, where his in-laws lived, and augmented his artistic work with tree farming.
“I got what I came after,” Thorp told a group of interested horticulturalists in 1910. “I took 1,500 acres of land in northern Minnesota, and I found land that was considered utterly worthless, covered with jack pine. I selected my location from an artistic standpoint rather than for the possibilities in agriculture.”
Thorp continued to paint while living in Minnesota and received a significant commission from the Montana Historical Library to paint portraits of 40 prominent persons from Montana’s early history.
His Lincoln commission came just two years before his death, although the portrait had been in the works for decades. Thorp commented that it took him so long to do the Lincoln portrait because he needed the skills that come with time in order to do justice to the subject. In his words, the Lincoln portrait was a “complete fulfillment of his life’s ambitions.”
Freeman Thorp died Oct. 20, 1922, in Crow Wing County, Minn. But at least one of his paintings, a portrait of his father, remains in Ashtabula County, at the Geneva Public Library.
Portraits painted by Geneva’s Freeman Thorp are among
Abraham Lincoln’s stop in Geneva was not on the agenda.
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