A self-trained artist born in Boston, George Peter Alexander Healy enjoyed moderate success as a painter in New England before traveling to Europe to study and seek commissions. He lived in both Paris and London, developing a style of portraiture that emphasized fine draftsmanship, naturalistic coloring, and a smooth, finished surface—all visible in this representation of Abraham Lincoln. The pinnacle of Healy's success abroad was a commission from French king Louis-Philippe to return to paint likenesses of distinguished American statesmen, an endeavor cut short by the French Revolution of 1848 and subsequent abdication of the king. In 1860, Chicago businessman and philanthropist Thomas B. Bryan purchased the works Healy had completed for the series, and commissioned the portrait of then president-elect Lincoln, an Illinois native son. Bryan planned to exhibit these works together in what he described as his "National Gallery," to be housed in the eponymous Bryan Music Hall in Chicago.
Although it lacks the iconic features that came to characterize Lincoln's visage in later portraits—his full beard, gaunt face, and pensive solemnity—this portrait is significant as the last painted depiction of Lincoln without a beard. The lines on Lincoln's forehead and jowls and the dark circles beneath his eyes hint at the demands of the election campaign and his impending service as president. Yet, as art collector and museum founder Duncan Phillips noted, "This is a happy Lincoln with a glint of the famous humor which was to mitigate his sorrows and his cares. . . . It is a disarmingly personal impression of the eyes of true greatness at a moment when they were lighted with the surprise, the honor, and the vision of supreme opportunity."
In addition to serving as the model for a 1959 postage stamp commemorating the sesquicentennial of Lincoln's birth, this portrait has hung in the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the White House, and the Lincoln School in southeast Washington, DC.