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What color were Abraham Lincoln’s eyes?


Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States and one of the most famous and influential figures in American history. His distinctive appearance, including his tall stature and beard, are instantly recognizable. However, one detail about Lincoln’s appearance that is less commonly known is the color of his eyes. Lincoln’s eye color has been a source of debate and fascination for historians and biographers seeking insights into his physical appearance and personality.

Lincoln’s Eye Color Described as Gray

Many historical accounts describe Lincoln’s eyes as gray. In fact, gray is the most commonly cited eye color in descriptions of Lincoln by people who knew him and artists who painted his portrait. A 1904 book noted that “All the portraits of Lincoln give his eyes as gray.” Lincoln’s personal secretary John G. Nicolay also stated that the president’s eyes were gray.

Some specific descriptions provide more details about the exact shade and nature of Lincoln’s gray eyes. A 1886 biography noted his eyes were “bluish gray in color—always in deep shadow, however, from the upper lids which were unusually heavy (sometimes described as ‘sad eyes’).” An Illinois newspaper also described Lincoln’s “light gray eyes, always apparently filled with tears.” These accounts suggest Lincoln’s eyes were a light, cool gray that tended towards blue-gray, with heavy lids that gave his eyes a sad, soulful look.

Depictions in Portraits and Photographs

In addition to written accounts, Lincoln’s eye color can perhaps be best determined from the actual visual primary sources of portraits and photographs. The majority of artists, painters, and sculptors who represented Lincoln portrayed his eyes as being gray.

Notable portraits including gray eyes are the Emancipation Memorial by Thomas Ball, the Lincoln Memorial statue by Daniel Chester French, and portraits by artists like George Peter Alexander Healy, Thomas Hicks, Eastman Johnson, and many others. These iconic portraits consistently show Lincoln’s distinctive eyes as being a cool gray.

Photographs of Lincoln also predominantly show light gray eyes, though the sepia tone photography of the era can make exact color difficult to discern. The close-up Gardner photograph of 1865 is perhaps the clearest photographic representation of Lincoln’s gray eyes peering out from his weathered face.

Some Accounts Suggest Blue Eyes

Despite the preponderance of evidence pointing to gray eyes, there are a minority of accounts that describe Lincoln’s eyes as blue in color. Poet Walt Whitman, who saw Lincoln at the White House and at Richmond after the Confederacy’s fall, described the president’s “deep-set, melancholy eyes of a bluish cast.”

John Ray, an English labor organizer who met Lincoln, also described his “bluish grey” eyes that had a “calm and deep melancholy look.” These sources seem to suggest Lincoln’s eye color was a blue-tinged gray that appeared more blue in certain lighting conditions.

Additionally, a few artists like Alfred Waud portrayed Lincoln’s eyes as light blue, though it is unclear if this was artistic license or accurate representation. The blue-eyed depictions remain outliers among the bigger number of gray-eyed portraits.

Explanation for the Contradictory Descriptions

How can we account for these contradictory descriptions of Lincoln’s eye color as either blue or gray? There are a few potential explanations.

Firstly, perceptions and descriptions of eye color can be subjective and imperfect. Subtle mixes of blue and gray can appear different in varying light. A blue-gray may look merely gray under some conditions but reflect hints of blue in others. So some of the confusion may simply stem from subtle variations in lighting and perception while looking at fundamentally gray-blue eyes.

Secondly, Lincoln’s heavy eyelids and eye conditions like his strabismus, or misalignment of the eyes, may have contributed to a changeable appearance. The drooping lids and shadowing may have concealed the eye color depending on Lincoln’s condition and expression.

Finally, the meaning behind the symbolic color descriptors themselves may provide clues. Blue often represents qualities like wisdom, calmness, and steadiness. Gray can indicate sadness, gloom, and solemnity. Those perceiving wisdom in Lincoln may have been more inclined to describe his eyes as blue, while those struck by his solemn air may have categorized his eyes as gray. The perceived personality was reflected in the choice of color.


While Abraham Lincoln’s eye color remains a subject of some debate, the overall evidence points to his eyes being predominately a light gray, perhaps tending towards blue-gray. This cool-toned eye color contributed to his striking appearance along with his dark eyebrows, chiseled facial features, and uncanny air of both melancholy and determination. The gray eyes gazing out from historical portraits ultimately reveal the complex and enigmatic depth of Lincoln’s personality as much as his physical appearance. Their penetrating look still captivates viewers over a century and a half later.


Source Description of Lincoln’s Eyes
George Peter Alexander Healy portrait, 1868 Cool gray
Thomas Hicks portrait, 1860-61 Pensive gray
Eastman Johnson portrait, 1870 Gray with a hint of blue
Emancipation Memorial, Thomas Ball, 1876 Light gray in shadow
Lincoln Memorial, Daniel Chester French, 1922 Grayish blue
Alfred Waud sketch, 1865 Light blue
John G. Nicolay “His eyes were gray”
1886 biography “Bluish gray in color”
Walt Whitman “Deep-set, melancholy eyes of a bluish cast”
John Ray “Bluish grey” with “melancholy look”

In conclusion, while there is some conflicting evidence and subjectivity in perceptions of color, the accumulated historical accounts and artistic representations point to Abraham Lincoln most likely having gray eyes, with hints of blue in certain lighting conditions. The cool tone contributed to his imposing yet sensitive appearance. While we may never know his exact eye color with complete certainty, the grayish-blue shade revealed in portraits and photographs capture the essence of this defining facial feature of one of America’s greatest presidents.