Lincoln’s Rebel Artist Niece – Katherine Helm

In the midst of a project involving all antebellum portrait artists in the Ohio River Valley it was interesting to discover an artist new to us, Katherine Helm (1857-1937), a niece of Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882). Katherine’s mother, Emilie Pariet Little Todd (1836-1930), was Mary Todd Lincoln’s favorite sister. Emilie was a staunch confederate as was much of the Todd family. After her husband, Confederate General Benjamin Hardin Helm (1831-1863), died at the Battle of Chickamauga, Emilie brought her three children to the White House. Katherine, the oldest, was six.  She played with her ten-year-old cousin Tad. 

One evening as the family sat in the parlor with Abraham Lincoln, Tad showed Katherine photographs.  When he came to a picture of his father he said, “This is the President.” 

Katherine replied, “No, that’s not the President.  Mr. Davis is the president.” Momentarily taken aback by this unexpected assertion, Tad recovered quickly, repeated his statement and to put the matter beyond further contradiction, shouted shrilly: ‘Hurrah for Abe Lincoln!’ And tiny Katherine replied defiantly, ‘Hurrah for Jeff Davis!’

At that point, Mr. Lincoln…reached down and scooped the flushed and glaring belligerents into his…arms. For a moment he held them to him in close embrace before placing one on each knee.  ‘Well, Tad, you know who is your President, and anyway, I am your little cousin’s Uncle Lincoln.”[1]

Katherine Helm, Mary Todd Lincoln, 1925, White House Art Collection

Katherine Helm, Mary Todd Lincoln, 1925, White House Art Collection

Katherine Helm studied at the Art Students’ League in New York.  When she returned to Kentucky she painted portraits of Kentucky governors, such Joseph Desha, and her grandfather, John L. Helm, and southern heroes, such as George Rogers Clark and Jefferson Davis, all from other portraits, photographs or from her imagination. Her paintings were included in the Kentucky Building at the World Fair in St. Louis.  

In 1925, with the encouragement of her cousin Robert Lincoln (1843-1926) and his wife Mary Harlan Lincoln (1846-1937), she painted three portraits of her aunt. On February 18, 1926, she presented President Calvin Coolidge a three-quarter length portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln as Katherine believed she looked at her husband’s inauguration in 1861.  Katherine Helm’s depiction of Mary Todd Lincoln is still the official White House portrait of the 16th First Lady.

 (c) Patricia Moss at fineartinvestigations at gmail


[1] William H. Townsend “Lincoln’s Rebel Niece: Katherine Helm, Artist and Author,” Lincoln Herald, Vol. 47, No. 1 (February 1945), 1

About Patricia Moss

Patricia Moss is an art historian and historian who specializes in 19th century American portraiture with special emphasis on George Caleb Bingham. She curated the opening exhibition, “George Caleb Bingham: Witness to History,” (September 2013 – April 2014), Jackson County Art Museum in Independence, Missouri. She served as guest curator for the Bingham Bicentennial Exhibit, “Steamboats to Steam Engines: George Caleb Bingham’s Missouri: 1819-1879,” (March 10-September 8, 2011) at the Truman Presidential Museum. She enjoys restoring identities of lesser known portrait artists whose work is sometimes forgotten or mistaken for more famous painters. She also likes discovering the occasional "lost" portrait of a distinguished artist.
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