NORWICH, Conn. – In a jam-packed Norwich Arts Center, Christopher Zhang, a professional painter from East Lyme, was named the winner of the Lincoln Portrait Project contest last weekend.

Zhang’s prize is $8,000 for the purchase of the portrait of Abraham Lincoln by the city, which will mount it in the frame from which the 19th-century original was stolen in 1994. The frame has undergone a $15,000 restoration.

The original was painted by John Denison Crocker in honor of Lincoln’s March 1860 visit to Norwich. The frame hangs empty in City Hall among other works by Crocker.

For the contest, the city invited artists to re-create Crocker’s portrait from the only known photograph of that portrait.

The 29 portraits on display at the Norwich Arts Center Sunday were anything but identical.

Some depicted Lincoln with bright, wide eyes, others with deep-set, dark eyes. In some portraits his fingers were plump, almost stubby, while in others they were long and bony.

“It’s really interesting how they took one photo and they’re all different. They all have a different character,” said Toni Scott, an artist from Voluntown who has a portrait in the contest.

Some artists, including Zhang, took months to complete their portraits.

Others took another tack.

“I didn’t find out about it until March, so I just painted as fast as I could,” said Sean Farrell, an artist from Woodstock. “It was still wet when I brought it in.”

Vivian Zoe, director of the Slater Memorial Museum in Norwich and organizer of the project, said the contest was more difficult than it appeared.

Crocker himself painted the original portrait after Lincoln’s death in 1865 using a number of photographs taken of Lincoln before, during and after the Civil War.

The single photograph available of the Crocker portrait was taken at an angle, making it difficult for artists to replicate the painting accurately, said Scott.

“It’s an interesting comment on perception, not only on the subject, but on your own perception of your work,” Zoe said.

Zhang said he won perhaps because he set out to re-create Crocker’s original.

“It was important to me not only to paint a portrait of Lincoln, but to paint John Crocker’s Lincoln,” Zhang said. “I think that (the city) wanted a copy of John Crocker’s Lincoln.”

The contest was juried by painter Leslie Lillien Levy and Old Lyme-based art dealer Jeff Cooley.

Zhang said he spent a great deal of time researching Crocker’s work, including the other Crocker paintings that surround the Lincoln portrait in City Hall.

Other artists also said the contest was extraordinarily difficult.

“The more challenging the portrait, the more rewarding, but this was like a battle. It’s definitely my greatest artistic achievement so far,” said Nora St. Jean, an artist from Pomfret.

St. Jean said she felt bad for artists whose work was left out of the contest.

When the Lincoln Portrait Project exhibition was moved from the Slater Memorial Museum to the much smaller Norwich Arts Center, more than 30 portraits were cut from the contest, angering artists.

Those portraits are on display throughout May at other locations downtown.

Zoe, who culled the paintings herself, said, “I do feel really bad for the artists that didn’t fit in this gallery.”

Still, the controversy may have done some good, she said.

“You can’t buy publicity like this,” Zoe said. “In that sense, maybe it helped everyone.”