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Left: Volk mask and hands of 1860; right: Mills mask of 1865
© Abraham Lincoln Online
Abraham Lincoln Life MasksOne of the myths surrounding Lincoln is that a death mask was made after his assassination. In fact, Lincoln had two life masks done, five years apart. The first was produced by Leonard Volk in Chicago, Illinois, in April 1860. Clark Mills completed the second in February 1865 in Washington, D.C. The photo shows mask copies and hand casts while on temporary display in Springfield, Illinois.
Leonard Volk Recalls the First Mask
In 1881, sculptor Leonard Volk explained how he made the first Lincoln mask. He met Lincoln in 1858 during Lincoln's campaign for the U.S. Senate, and invited him to sit for a bust. Lincoln agreed, but it took Volk's insistance two years later before Lincoln came to his studio. By this time it was the spring of 1860, shortly before Lincoln received the Republican nomination for president.
Volk said, "My studio was in the fifth story, and there were no elevators in those days, and I soon learned to distinguish his steps on the stairs, and am sure he frequently came up two, if not three, steps at a stride." Volk took measurements of his head and shoulders and made a plaster cast of his face to reduce the number of sittings.
Of the plaster casting process, Volk said, "It was about an hour before the mold was ready to be removed, and being all in one piece, with both ears perfectly taken, it clung pretty hard, as the cheek-bones were higher than the jaws at the lobe of the ear. He bent his head low and took hold of the mold, and gradually worked it off without breaking or injury; it hurt a little, as a few hairs of the tender temples pulled out with the plaster and made his eyes water." Lincoln said he found the process "anything but agreeable."
Volk said that during the sittings, "he would talk almost unceasingly, telling some of the funniest and most laughable of stories, but he talked little of politics or religion during those sittings. He said: 'I am bored nearly every time I sit down to a public dining-table by some one pitching into me, on politics.'"
Volk left a priceless legacy for future sculptors, as attested by Avard Fairbanks, who said, "Virtually every sculptor and artist uses the Volk mask for Lincoln ... it is the most reliable document of the Lincoln face, and far more valuable than photographs, for it is the actual form."
Volk Casts the Hands in Springfield
Volk arrived in Lincoln's home town of Springfield, Illinois, on May 18, 1860, the day Lincoln was nominated for president. He said, "I went straight to Mr. Lincoln's unpretentious little two-story house. He saw me from his door or window coming down the street, and as I entered the gate, he was on the platform in front of the door, and quite alone. His face looked radiant. I exclaimed: 'I am the first man from Chicago, I believe, who has the honor of congratulating you on your nomination for President.' Then those two great hands took both of mine with a grasp never to be forgotten." Volk told Lincoln he would be the next president and he wanted to make a statue of him.
Once invited inside, Volk said he gave Mrs. Lincoln "a cabinet-size bust of her husband, which I had modeled from a large one, and happened to have with me." Volk returned another day to cast Lincoln's hands. He wanted Lincoln to hold something in his right hand, so Lincoln produced a broom handle from his wood shed and began whittling the end of it. "I remarked to him that he need not whittle off the edges. 'Oh, well,' said he, 'I thought I would like to have it nice.' Volk did the casting in the dining room, and noticed "The right hand appeared swollen as compared with the left, on account of excessive hand-shaking the evening before; this difference is distinctly shown in the cast."
Volk visited the Lincoln home in January 1861, just weeks before Lincoln left for Washington. He said Lincoln "announced in a general way that I had made a bust of him before his nomination, and that he was then giving daily sittings at the St. Nicholas Hotel to another sculptor; that he had sat for him for a week or more, but could not see the likeness, though he might yet bring it out. 'But,' continued Mr. Lincoln, 'in two or three days after Mr. Volk commenced my bust, there was the animal himself.'"
Masks Show Changes in Lincoln's Life
John Hay, who served as one of Lincoln's White House secretaries, noticed that Lincoln "aged with great rapidity" during the Civil War. He said, "Under this frightful ordeal his demeanor and disposition changed -- so gradually that it would be impossible to say when the change began; but he was in mind, body, and nerves a very different man at the second inauguration from the one who had taken the oath in 1861."
Hay had seen both Lincoln life masks and remarked, "This change is shown with startling distinctness by two life-masks ... The first is a man of fifty-one, and young for his years. The face has a clean, firm outline; it is free from fat, but the muscles are hard and full; the large mobile mouth is ready to speak, to shout, or laugh; the bold, curved nose is broad and substantial, with spreading nostrils; it is a face full of life, of energy, of vivid aspiration. The other is so sad and peaceful in its infinite repose that the famous sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens insisted, when he first saw it, that it was a death-mask. The lines are set, as if the living face, like the copy, had been in bronze; the nose is thin, and lengthened by the emaciation of the cheeks; the mouth is fixed like that of an archaic statue; a look as of one on whom sorrow and care had done their worst without victory is on all the features; the whole expression is of unspeakable sadness and all-sufficing strength. Yet the peace is not the dreadful peace of death; it is the peace that passeth understanding."
Life Mask Inspires Poem
After Stuart Sterne saw a Lincoln life mask in a Washington museum he published this poem in the February 1890 edition of the Century magazine:
Ah, countless wonders, brought from every zone,
Not all your wealth could turn the heart away
From that one semblance of our common clay,
The brow whereon the precious life long flown,
Leaving a homely glory all its own,
Seems still to linger, with a mournful play
Of light and shadow! -- His, who held a sway
And power of magic to himself unknown,
Through what is granted but God's chosen few,
Earth's crownless, yet anointed kings, -- a soul
Divinely simply and sublimely true
In that unconscious greatness that shall bless
This petty world while stars their courses roll,
Whose finest flower is self-forgetfulness.
Lincoln Life Masks at the Smithsonian (Smithsonian Institution)
Volk Life Mask Cast by St. Gaudens (Smithsonian Institution)
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