Abraham Lincoln and Diogenes: Painting by Solomon Nunes Carvalho, Sephardic Pioneer of Los Angeles

Abraham Lincoln and Diogenes: Painting by Solomon Nunes Carvalho, Sephardic Pioneer of Los Angeles

Solomon Carvalho, self-portrait, 1848, #WS2671-18

Solomon Nunes Carvalho, an artist and photographer of Spanish-Portuguese Jewish descent, was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1815.

One of Carvalho’s earliest paintings was the interior of Kahal Kodesh Beth Elohim of Charleston, which was destroyed by a fire in 1838. Carvalho received fifty dollars for the work.

By 1853, Carvalho had photo and painting galleries in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City.

In the winter of 1853–1854, he was hired as a photographer for John Charles Frémont’s Fifth Exploring Expedition, which journeyed through Kansas, Colorado, and Utah in search of a railroad route to the Pacific Ocean.

Carvalho wrote of the expedition in his Incidents of Travel and Adventure in the Far West (1857), the only existent volume detailing Frémont’s fifth and final expedition.

On the 22nd August, 1853, after a short interview with Col. J. C. Frémont, I accepted his invitation to accompany him as artist of an Exploring Expedition across the Rocky Mountains. A half hour previously, if anybody had suggested to me the probability of my undertaking an overland journey to California, even over the emigrant route, I should have replied there were no inducements sufficiently powerful to have tempted me. Yet, in this instance, I impulsively, without even a consultation with my family, passed my word to join an exploring party, under command of Col. Frémont, over a hitherto untrodden country, in an elevated region, with the full expectation of being exposed to all the inclemencies of an arctic winter. I know of no other man to whom I would have trusted my life, under similar circumstances.  

Carvalho arrived in Los Angeles in 1854, taking up residence and establishing his studio on the second floor of La Tienda de China, a fancy dry goods store on Main Street operated by two Sephardic brothers, Samuel K. and Joseph I. Labatt.

The brothers joined Solomon in forming the Hebrew Benevolent Society of Los Angeles (est. 1854, now Jewish Family Service), the city’s first chartered non-profit charitable organization.

While in Los Angeles, Carvalho painted portraits of Pío Pico, the last governor of Alta California under Mexican rule, and several prominent pioneers. Unfortunately, these paintings have been lost.

Carvalho sailed for Baltimore in 1854 and never returned West.

After the Civil War, Carvalho relocated with his family to New York City. By 1869, he had developed cataracts, which impaired his portrait business. He became an inventor, and received two patents for steam superheating in 1877 and 1878, as well as the Medal of Excellence from the American Institute of New York.

During the final stage of his life, Carvalho tried to harmonize modern scientific thought and the biblical story of creation. His findings were never published.

Solomon Carvalho died in 1897 and is buried in the historic Beth Olom Cemetery in Queens County, New York.

Abraham Lincoln and Diogenes

Abraham Lincoln and Diogenes, c. 1865, Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University

Abraham Lincoln and Diogenes, c. 1865, is Solomon Nunes Carvalho’s best-known work, and the only known portrait of Lincoln by a contemporary Jewish artist.

The 44 x 34-inch oil painting depicts the Greek Cynic philosopher Diogenes dropping his lantern upon encountering Lincoln, surprised that he had at last found an honest man—the subject of his legendary quest. Lincoln, seated beneath a neoclassical statue of George Washington, holds a copy of his second inaugural address open to the words, “malice toward none, with charity for all.”

The portrait is based on a widely circulated photograph of Lincoln from February 1861, taken a few days before his inauguration.

The painting was acquired by Los Angeles historian Justin C. Turner, who was an advisor to the Western States Jewish Historical Quarterly, the journal of the Western States Jewish History Association. Justin C. Turner, along with Mr. and Mrs. Maurice Turner and John J. Mack, donated the work to Brandeis University in 1958.

Sources

  • William M. Kramer, “Solomon Nunes Carvalho Helped in Founding the Los Angeles Jewish Community,” Western States Jewish History28/4; 38/3&4.
  • Justin G. Turner, A Note on Solomon Nuñes Carvalho and his Portrait of Abraham Lincoln (Los Angeles: The Plantin Press, 1960).
  • Harold Holzer, Lincoln and the Jews: The Last Best Hope of Earth (Los Angeles: Skirball Cultural Center, 2002).

Jonathan Friedmann is curator for this Abraham Lincoln and Diogenes exhibit.