Blast from the Past: Lincoln’s Life Mask is Better than a Photograph


If you walk over to the sculpture section of the Henry Luce III Center on the 4th floor of the New-York Historical Society, you’ll see Abraham Lincoln’s actual face… Well, the closest thing there is to it. You’ll see a bronze “life mask” of Lincoln, cast by artist Leonard Volk using a mold made on Lincoln’s actual face in 1860.

Leonard Volk, Lincoln Life Mask, 1860, New-York Historical Society, Inventory Number: 1939.583

People have been creating life (and death) masks of important cultural figures for thousands of years. In the nineteenth century, sculptors like Volk made them so they could create accurate likenesses of famous people. These masks were considered more realistic than photographs because they were life-size and three-dimensional.

To make a life mask, an artist first had to create a mold of a person’s face. An artist would spread oil over the sitter’s face and then apply thin layers of plaster over the oil. As the layers were applied, the artist might also place strings in it so that the mold could be removed by tugging on the strings once the plaster was totally dry. To make the mask, the artist would pour plaster or bronze into the mold and remove it when it was dry.[1]

In 1860, artist Leonard Volk made plaster casts of his face, shoulders, and hands.  According to Volk, getting Lincoln to sit for the casts was an adventure. Volk wrote that one morning in 1860, he was reading the newspaper and saw that Lincoln was arguing a case in Chicago. Volk immediately tracked down Lincoln at a courthouse and found him with “his feet on the edge of a table, one of his fingers thrust into his mouth, and his long, dark hair standing out at every imaginable angle, apparently uncombed for a week.”[2] The unkempt Lincoln remembered Volk. The two had met in 1858, and Lincoln had promised to sit for Volk on day.  That day came on two days after their courthouse reunion.

Volk remembered hearing Lincoln come up the steps to his studio. He wrote, “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”[3]

Volk cast Lincoln’s face in the first sitting. Having never sat for anything but a photograph, Volk said Lincoln was unsure of what to do with himself. To break the ice, Volk’s assistant Matteo Mattei entertained Lincoln with a story about a botched casting of a Swiss gentleman’s face (one that Mattei had done alone). Apparently, Mattei’s humor warmed Lincoln to the idea of having plaster poured all over his face. Though Lincoln’s casting went quite well, Volk noted that:

…being all in one piece, it clung pretty hard, as the cheekbones were higher than the jaw at the lobe of the ear. He [Lincoln] 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. [4]

While Volk was casting Lincoln’s shoulders in a later session, he noticed the future president seemed to be in a rush. This session required Lincoln to be shirtless, and Volk noted that he dressed quickly after the cast was removed and then left. Moments later, Lincoln returned and said:

‘Hello Mr. Volk! I got down on the sidewalk and found I had forgotten to put on my undershirt, and thought it wouldn’t do to go through the streets this way.’ Sure enough, there were the sleeves of that garment dangling below the skirts of his broadcloth frock coat! I [Volk] went at once to his assistance, and helped to undress and re-dress him all right, and out he went with a hearty laugh at the absurdity of the thing.”[5]

Very shortly after their casting sessions were over, Lincoln received the Republican party nomination for president. Volk claims he was the first Chicagoan to offer his congratulations to the presidential candidate.

Volk ended up using his castings to create a statue of Lincoln in the Springfield, Illinois statehouse. Daniel Chester French also studied Volk’s mask in order to make the Lincoln National Monument. New-York Historical has the full-sized maquette for the head of this memorial. Check it out below- do you see the resemblance? After Lincoln’s death, castings of Volk’s life masks were sold to the public. Sometimes, they still turn up at auctions and are pretty valuable.

There’s much more to Lincoln than his face! If you want to explore our 16th president further, come hear Barry Denenberg speak about his book, Lincoln Shot: A President’s Life Remembered, on April 14th, the 148th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination. If you are new to this topic, join us at 1:30 pm when Barry will discuss Lincoln’s death and sign books.  For families that have read Lincoln Shot, join Barry and our Reading into History book club at 3 pm for a more in-depth discussion, mini-tour of Lincoln artifacts, and book signing. E-mail familyprograms@nyhistory.org for more information.

Daniel Chester French, Abraham Lincoln, 1919-1920, New-York Historical Society, Inventory Number: 1954.79

[1] Gibson, Iris IJM. “Death Masks Unlimited” British Medical Journal, Volume 291, 21-28, December, 1985

[2] Volk, Leonard W. “The Lincoln Life-Mask and How It Was Made.” The Century Magazine(1881): 3-13. Openlibrary.org. Web. 4 Apr. 2013. <http://www.unz.org/Pub/VolkLeonard-1881>.

[3] Volk, Leonard W. “The Lincoln Life-Mask and How It Was Made.” The Century Magazine(1881): 3-13. Openlibrary.org. Web. 4 Apr. 2013. <http://www.unz.org/Pub/VolkLeonard-1881>.

[4] Volk, Leonard W. “The Lincoln Life-Mask and How It Was Made.” The Century Magazine(1881): 3-13. Openlibrary.org. Web. 4 Apr. 2013. <http://www.unz.org/Pub/VolkLeonard-1881>.

[5] Volk, Leonard W. “The Lincoln Life-Mask and How It Was Made.” The Century Magazine(1881): 3-13. Openlibrary.org. Web. 4 Apr. 2013. <http://www.unz.org/Pub/VolkLeonard-1881>.


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