Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Lincolniana on Auction: Life or Death Mask?

I thought we might try something a bit different today as we continue our series: Lincolniana on Auction.

In the past, we’ve examined various Lincoln documents, but today, I thought we might look at sculpture; in particular, life masks.

After studying in Rome, sculptor Leonard Volk opened a studio in Chicago in 1857. He learned about a rising politician who was making national headlines with a series of debates against U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas. Volk seized his opportunity. He asked Lincoln if he would serve as his subject; Lincoln gave his consent.

Toward the end of March 1860, Lincoln visited Volk’s studio. To keep future sittings to a minimum, the sculptor made a plaster cast of Lincoln’s face. Recalling the process of letting wet plaster dry on his face, Lincoln said it was “anything but agreeable.”

Not only did the plaster cast turn out well enough for Volk to produce a fine bust of the future president, but the “life mask” preserved Lincoln’s appearance in 3D.

“Virtually every sculptor and artist uses the Volk mask for Lincoln,” said sculptor Avard Fairbanks, “it is the most reliable document of the Lincoln face, and far more valuable than photographs, for it is the actual form.”

Today, you can actually buy a replica of the 1860 life mask (as pictured above).

Shortly after Lincoln captured the Republican nomination for president, Volk paid a visit to him in Springfield. “I went straight to Mr. Lincoln’s unpretentious little two-story house,” recalled Volk. He gave Mary a smaller version of this finished bust:

By Leonard Volk

Volk told Lincoln he wanted to make a full-length statue of the next president of the United States. Again, Lincoln consented.

This time, Volk began by making plaster casts of Lincoln’s hands.

He told Lincoln to hold something in his right hand. Lincoln seized a broom handle and the casting took place in the dining room. “The right hand appeared swollen as compared with the left, on account of excessive hand-shaking the eveing before,” Volk later said, “this difference is distinctly shown in the cast.”

You can even buy replica castings of Lincoln's hands. I searched Ebay for an example, but I could only find Lincoln's left hand:

But the life mask business does not stop there. Lincoln sat for yet another life mask about three months before he was killed. This time, on February 11, 1865, sculptor Clark Mills captured the president's likeness. He covered Lincoln's face with oil, applied a coat of wet plaster, waited 15 minutes, and then removed it.

Though less than five years had passed between life masks, the results varied greatly. The toll of the war had visibly worn the president down. In fact, most people assume this final life mask was not taken during Lincoln’s lifetime at all. Oftentimes, people assume this was a “death mask.”

Again, this life mask has been reproduced and is available for purchase. I could only find one example of this one:

In addition to sculptors and painters, I suppose people buy these life masks for display in their office or library. At the very least, they are certainly conversation pieces. But remember, don’t believe anyone who tries to tell you the second likeness is a “death mask.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am looking for help. My mom has a "death mask" (replica?) of General Lee that she picked up at an estate sale. It is inscribed with Clark Mills on the top of the skull. I don't know who to ask or where to go to find out information. I did read online that the whereabouts of 3 are unknown, that Mills did from the original. I don't know if this is a replica, or maybe, who knows, one of those missing 3??? My email is gardenofmercy @ gmail.com. Thank you!