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Life mask and hands of Abraham Lincoln

Life mask and hands of Abraham Lincoln Bronze sculpture
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[ This description is from the project: Witness to America's Past ]

The sculptor Leonard Wells Volk was raised in New York state and western Massachusetts, where he began carving marble in his father's shop. After practicing his craft in New York, he moved to St. Louis, where he began to teach himself modeling and drawing and attempted his first sculptures. In 1852 he married a cousin of Senator Stephen A. Douglas, who became interested in Volk's career and provided the funds for Volk to spend two years in Rome and Florence studying art. Upon settling in Chicago in 1857, Volk became a leader in the art circles there, where he was a founder of the Academy of Design and for eight years its president.1 The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 provided the opportunity for a statue of Douglas and a promise from Lincoln to sit for a bust. Two years later Volk reminded Lincoln of his promise, and Lincoln sat for this life mask in Chicago while representing a court case in April 1860. Describing the process of removing the mask, Volk wrote:

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 mould and worked it off himself without break or injury; it hurt a little, as a few straggling hairs about the tender temples pulled out with the plaster and made his eyes water.2

The bust which was based on this mask pleased Mr. Lincoln for when asked for some good likenesses of him-self, he replied via a third party: "If your friend could procure one of the 'heads' 'busts' or whatever you call it, by Volk at Chicago, I should think it the thing for him."3 The original bust was exhibited in Paris in 1867 and re-turned to the Chicago Historical Society, but was destroyed by the great fire of 1871.4

In May 1860, on the day after Lincoln's nomination for the presidency, Volk was in Springfield to make casts of his hands for use in a full-size statue.

I wished him to hold something in his right hand, and he looked for a piece of pasteboard, but could find none. I told him a round stick would do as well as anything. There-upon he went to the woodshed, and I heard the saw go, and he soon returned to the dining room whittling off the end of a piece of broom handle. 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."5

The right hand was still swollen from excessive handshaking the day before, and the left thumb bore a scar from his railsplitting days. This old injury clearly shows in the original cast and in this bronze casting, but not in later casts, as it was thought to be a defect.

Volk sent the first plaster copy of the original plaster cast of the mask to the French painter Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904), who was the teacher of his son Douglas in Paris. Gerome later gave the copy to the American sculptor Truman H. Bartlett, who had this bronze life mask cast from it in Paris about 1875, and gave the bronzeto Alfred Bowditch, father of Mara Orne Bowditch, who gave it to the Historical Society.6

Douglas Volk later gave the original plaster casts of the mask and hands to a fellow art student Wyatt Eaton. In 1886 Richard Watson Gilder, editor of the Century Magazine, formed a committee to raise money through subscription to purchase the casts from Eaton for presentation to the National Museum (Smithsonian Institution). Each of the thirty-three subscribers, who included Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the Boston Athenaeum, and the Irish author Bram Stoker, received a casting from the original. Five or six of the subscription sets were done in bronze and the balance in plaster. Other sets were later produced commercially, but the Historical Society's bronzes are a unique set based on the earliest version of the casts.

1. F. Lauriston Bullard. Lincoln in Marble and Bronze. New Brunswick, NJ., 1952, p.91.

2. Douglas Volk. "Making the Life Mask of Abraham Lincoln." The Magazine of History 21 (1922), p.22.

3. Abraham Lincoln to James F. Babcock, Springfield, Ill., Sept. 13 1860, in Lincoln 1953, 4:114.

4. Dictionary of American Biography. Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds. 20 vols. New York, 1928-1936.

5. Douglas Volk. "Making the Life Mask of Abraham Lincoln." The Magazine of History 21 (1922), p.24.

6. Boston Evening Transcript, March 12, 1917; Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 69 (1947-1948):458-459.