Life mask and hands of Lincoln

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Life mask and hands of Lincoln
Leonard Wells Volk
9 x 8 x 5 in. (mask), 6 x 4 x 3 in. (left hand), 6 x 5 x 3 in. (right hand)
Chicago History Museum, Hands: Gift of Jules Berchem
X.521 (mask), 1913.76ab (hands), ICHi-52644

In the early spring of 1860, a young, ambitious Chicago sculptor named Leonard Volk invited Abraham Lincoln to visit his studio. The Illinois lawyer was in the city on official business, representing the interests of a railroad company as he often did. Volk wanted to make a portrait bust of Lincoln, a prominent Springfield lawyer and rising star of the brand new Republican Party. (Ironically, Lincoln’s political rival, Stephen A. Douglas, helped pay for Volk’s art education. Moreover, the sculptor named his son “Stephen Douglas Volk.”) To create an impression of Lincoln, Volk first coated his face with plaster, inserting straws into Lincoln’s nostrils so he could breathe. Volk then allowed the plaster to harden slightly before pulling it off. The somewhat painful process resulted in the life mask that Volk used to create a three-dimensional bust. By the 1880s other sculptors learned of Volk’s life mask of Lincoln. Over time many copies were made, and artists such as Saint-Gaudens (creator of Abraham Lincoln: The Man (The Standing Lincoln) and Abraham Lincoln, Head of State Seated Lincoln) relied on them to make their statues very realistic. That’s one reason why many sculptures of Lincoln look alike, and why they are so accurate.

Shortly after Lincoln won the Republican party’s nomination to run for president, Volk visited him in Springfield and made plaster castings of his hands. When asked if he had anything to hold for the cast of the right hand, Lincoln went outside to his shed and cut off a piece of a broomstick handle for the purpose. Over time, the life mask and hand casts have become cherished mementos of Lincoln. These bronze copies were part of a set of thirty-three made in 1886 to raise money to purchase the originals from Volk’s son, so that they could be placed in the Smithsonian Institution, where they now rest. 

1. Do you think you could stand to have your face covered in plaster for forty-five minutes? Have you ever had to undergo anything like this?

2. Would you consider Volk’s casts of Lincoln as works of art? Why or why not?

3. Why would an artist make a portrait of someone who might become famous?

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