A few days ago I posted three views of Abraham Lincoln, a compilation of three photographs I took within the span of a few days in Washington D.C. I’ll have more on the second and third photos soon; for now let’s focus on the first one. The life masks and hands of our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln.
Back in the day, that is, the middle of the 1800s, sculptors would make a mask of the subjects face and head to later use for busts and full length sculptures. A Chicago-based sculptor named Leonard Volk approached Lincoln in the midst of the famous 1858 Illinois Senate race against Stephen A. Douglas. After two years of lobbying Volk finally convinced Lincoln to sit down in the spring of 1860, not long after Lincoln had returned from the East where he wowed the crowds at Cooper Union and in various cities of New England.
The casting process, according to Lincoln (and Abraham Lincoln Online), was “anything but agreeable.” Volk himself noted that:
“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.”
The hands were actually cast a couple of months later in Lincoln’s Springfield home. Both are shown clasped, but the right hand holds a short piece of wood. Not surprisingly for Lincoln, the wood has a story. Again from Abraham Lincoln Online:
[Volk] 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. When Volk told him he didn’t have to smooth the edges Lincoln replied, “I thought I would like to have it nice.” Since Lincoln had been shaking hands in congratulations for getting the Republican nomination for President, Volk noted that “the right hand appeared swollen as compared to the left,” and that “this difference is distinctly shown in the cast.”
Ah, but there is a second life mask. Cast in February 1865, just weeks before the end of the Civil War and Lincoln’s tragic assassination, sculptor Clark Mills applied oil to Lincoln’s face, followed by a thin layer of plaster. Unlike the Volk mask, which came off in one piece, the second life mask fell “off in large pieces” that “were then reassembled to form the finished mask.”
Just one look at the two masks can show how the war (and illness) wore on the man and his face. The difference is striking, and disheartening.
I was lucky enough to see the masks and hands in the National Portrait Gallery, one of the Smithsonian’s many museums open free to the public. The attendant in the gallery told me that the sculptures had only returned to the museum about two weeks before, having been on tour. He expected them to go back out on tour in about six months. You can also see them in the Library of Congress in this short video from the History Channel.
Of course, why dawdle over some heads and hands when you can sit with Abraham Lincoln in his entirety? More on the second photo later.
More on Abraham Lincoln.
David J. Kent has been a scientist for thirty-five years, is an avid science traveler, and an independent Abraham Lincoln historian. He is the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (now in its 5th printing) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate. His book on Thomas Edison is due in Barnes and Noble stores in July 2016.