Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Her Life’s Work: Why artist Wendy Allen has devoted her entire career to one subject: Abraham Lincoln

Portrait by Wendy Allen.

Artist Wendy Allen knows every line, every feature of Abraham Lincoln’s face, perhaps better than her own. That’s because she’s painted him more than 500 times.

“It’s a complex, compelling face, but beautiful. I always start each painting with the eyes, and, if I don’t get the eyes just right, I start over,” said Allen, 66, surrounded by a colorful jumble of paints, easels and canvases—works in progress—in her Gettysburg studio. No two are alike.

Just as we, as humans, first make eye contact with people, it’s Abraham Lincoln’s eyes in each of her paintings—whether traditional or modern—that seem to capture and pull the viewer in.

“The eyes are so deeply set, but so beautiful,” Allen said. “His ears are lopsided, his eyes are lopsided, one half of his mouth goes up—the other half goes down, then the high cheekbones. There were 130 photos taken of Lincoln. And the biggest complaint of artists through the ages is his face is never the same.”

Lincoln’s face, although morphing through the years, is one of the most recognizable faces of all time. That’s also due to his stature and role in our nation’s history.

So for Allen, her life’s work is about much more than the challenge of capturing Lincoln’s portrait on the surface of a canvas. It’s about capturing and conveying his ideals.


More than Face Value

If Lincoln were alive today, Allen said, we might describe him as “authentic.”

“But back then, they would’ve said he was organic and natural, because what you see with Lincoln is what you got. With a politician, that’s refreshing,” Allen said. “It’s incredible—what he did, guiding the country through the Civil War, getting the amendments passed, ending slavery. It’s huge—he really corrected the course.”

She should know. She’s studied and read about Lincoln for nearly 50 years, beginning with her college days as a dual history and political science major. Keep in mind, more books have been written about Lincoln than anyone else, except Jesus.

Lincoln was greatly influenced by George Washington and the Declaration of Independence—almost as much as the Constitution, Allen said.

“He loved the concepts, he was so high-minded,” Allen said. “Anything he did, he always referred back to the Declaration of Independence, and you can even hear that in the Gettysburg Address. He really got the essence of freedom and liberty.”

Allen’s gallery, Lincoln into Art, is located along Baltimore Street, on the very route that Lincoln took when he visited Gettysburg to deliver what’s considered the most famous speech in history, in November 1863. As the name of her business states, she’s keeping Lincoln’s legacy alive, via art.

“I love modern art, contemporary art, but there is an emptiness within it that I find disturbing, and I also find a lot of victimization—not that it’s not called for—but art must touch the heart and convey love, and I think that’s starting to get lost in art, to a certain degree,” Allen said. “So, I want to make beautiful art and rebel against what’s going on now. So, what I do is continue to examine Lincoln’s face and try to put it in new settings.”

Like many careers, it was a winding road—even spanning the country—that led to Allen’s own place in history as “the Lincoln artist.”


Journey of a Lifetime

Born and raised in Pittsburgh through the first half of her childhood, Allen and her family relocated to Connecticut, where she obtained the rest of her education, through college. Following graduation, coinciding with the death of her mother, she needed a change.

“I just packed up my little VW Bug—I had about 50 bucks—and I drove out to California,” Allen said. “I eventually found a job in a design department at a publishing company. I was a secretary for the design director, all the talented designers were all artists, as well. There was this great art movement in the Bay area, and I just fell in love with it.”

Even though she’d never had an art lesson, she tried her hand at painting, using her windowsill as her easel. Early attempts, she admits, were “amateurish.” That all changed after a trip back east to visit her younger sister at Gettysburg College. That fateful visit coincided with the college’s Civil War Institute, an annual conference of leading history scholars. When Allen returned to California, she was inspired to paint her first Lincoln.

“It was an entirely different painting—and I thought, ‘Wow, this is so fascinating,’ and I just never stopped,” Allen said.

As she painted Lincoln through the years, she worked her way up the publishing ladder to become creative director for Scholastic. She left the position about a dozen years ago to paint fulltime.


The Rest Is History

Allen’s paintings now start at $800, with large-scale works going as high as $5,000.

Harold Holzer, considered one of the top experts on Lincoln, has written nearly 50 books on the 16th president, including “The Lincoln Image.”

“Almost every artist who encountered Lincoln despaired about how difficult it was to capture him. Most turned to photography,” Holzer said. “He has a familiar but elusive face. As Wendy and I have chatted, when you get down to the anatomical issues, Lincoln actually had a totally asymmetrical face, and it probably happened when he was kicked in the head by a horse as a child.”

To have her paintings accepted by Lincoln scholars is no small feat.

“You can’t flop a Lincoln picture without getting all the Lincoln community upset and hysterical,” said Holzer, who’s known Allen about 20 years. “Her audience, her fan base, and her impact have all grown exponentially.”

She’s also a respected and tireless community volunteer. She recently stepped down from the Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania board after 10 years of service.

“She’s a much-beloved civic member of the community—they all adore her,” Holzer said.

While many of us remember Lincoln’s legacy (and Washington’s) this Feb. 21 on Presidents’ Day, Allen pays homage to his memory every day of her life.

“I’ve committed my whole entire life to not only Lincoln, but my love of country,” Allen said. “I love America, I love the ideals, I really do.”

Wendy Allen’s gallery, Lincoln Into Art, is located at 329 Baltimore St., Gettysburg, and online at And tune into TheBurg Podcast’s February episode to learn more about this fascinating artist and her love of Lincoln.


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