- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 4, 2007

On a warm, breezy Saturday — March 31, 1860 — Chicago sculptor Leonard W. Volk met with his subject, Abraham Lincoln, in Volk’s fifth-floor home and studio.

The men had been introduced two years earlier during the Illinois Senate campaign and debates. Lincoln’s firm double-grasp handshake had impressed Volk. After some amiable conversation, Lincoln had promised that he would pose one day for the sculptor.

Now, while in Chicago on legal business, he had come to Volk’s workshop at 46 Portland Block, on the southeastern corner of Dearborn and Washington streets, three blocks west of Lake Michigan and one block east of the Cook County courthouse, to make good on his promise.

Recently returned from a triumphant speech he had delivered at Cooper Union in New York City and a whirlwind speaking tour of New England, the gangly Illinois lawyer and politician now found himself famous. No doubt Lincoln was pleased with a column that appeared in that day’s edition of the Chicago Tribune. A contributing piece from the Quincy Whig and Republican gushed with praise, proclaiming that the “INTELLECTUAL GIANT, honest Abraham Lincoln,” was its choice to be the Republican Party’s presidential standard-bearer.

“We confess that so great is our enthusiasm for the man, that whenever and wherever we hear his name, the first impulse is to give him three rousing cheers. His face, the sparkle of his honest eyes, the tone of his clarion-like voice, and his splendid talents, his honesty, simplicity of character, and backbone, are so well known, that we cannot add anything that will make all Illinoisans more enthusiastic for him than they are now.”

The newspaper account foreshadowed the image Americans would use to define Lincoln in subsequent generations. A portrait bust sculpted by Volk would reflect just how far the self-educated and self-made man had come in his 51 years.

A Douglas man

Ironically, the sculptor was related by marriage to Lincoln’s chief political rival, Stephen A. Douglas. In fact, Douglas had defrayed the cost of Volk’s academic training in Rome from 1855 to 1857. Rome, the sculptor said, was “the finest school for the advancement in the Art of Sculpture for the World.”

Volk’s kinship with Douglas was so strong that he named his son Stephen Arnold Douglas Volk. On a waist-high, columnlike pedestal in Volk’s studio sat a plaster portrait bust of the “Little Giant” draped in a Roman toga. Under the bust, on one of the chipped and shopworn modeling stands, were the tools of Volk’s trade, an assortment of modeling knives, loop tools, saws, calipers and mallets.

The musty, earthy odor of clay — the stuff of the sculptor’s craft — permeated the air. Small lumps of dried clay and hardened plaster littered the studio’s wood floor. Plaster dust produced a thin film that settled everywhere. In the corner sat a well-worn red velvet chairin which both Lincoln and Douglas, as well as other Civil War-era luminaries including William Seward and Ulysses S. Grant, would sit while visiting the studio.

Northern light streamed into the studio through a skylight cut into the fifth-floor attic ceiling, offering the artist the best and most diffuse natural light with which to work. Volk liked to wear an embroidered fez, complete with tassel. The 32-year-old sculptor gave the appearance of the beau ideal of a bohemian practitioner of the fine arts.

An odd face

To begin the process, a life mask needed to be created. The clean-shaven future president sat in a seat across from a mirror where he could watch the process unfold. Volk gingerly applied a light sheen of oil to what he called “the patient’s” face. Next he spread some clay on Lincoln’s forehead to keep his hair in place. Two quills were slipped up Lincoln’s nostrils so he could breathe.

Once the preparatory work was complete, the sculptor proceeded to cover his subject’s face with thick wet plaster. As the plaster cured, it got hotter and hotter, making it uncomfortable. An hour later, the plaster had set. Lincoln gingerly removed the mask himself.

“Being all in one piece, with both ears perfectly taken, it clung pretty hard,” Volk recalled, “as the cheekbones were higher than the jaws at the lobe of the ear. He bent his head low and took hold of the mold and worked it off,” With the mask, Lincoln pulled some hair from his eyebrows. As he did so, Lincoln’s eyes filled with tears, and he commented that “the process was anything but agreeable.”

The next day, Lincoln briskly climbed the steps of Volk’s building, his long legs taking several at a time. The mask, by then a positive image, was complete. The sculptor had poured liquid plaster into the negative waste mold that had been attached to Lincoln’s face.

In his typically self-deprecating manner, Lincoln exclaimed, “There’s the animal himself!” The cast had captured for all posterity the odd curvature of Lincoln’s face with which sculptors would have to contend.

There was the natural curve from the crown down to the chin, but there also was a curve across the face most articulated by the 3/8-inch off-center alignment of Lincoln’s nose. This created two distinct hemispheres of Lincoln’s face. His right side was more relaxed and fleshy, reflecting perhaps his innate compassion and flexibility, while his left side offered a tighter musculature, suggesting the resolve Lincoln had with regard to preserving the Union.

Trip to Springfield

On Thursday, May 18, Volk was traveling by train to Springfield when word reached the passengers that Lincoln had been nominated by the Republican Party as its candidate for president. Volk found the town in a cheerful mood. Church bells were ringing and flags waving. “The afternoon was lovely — bright and sunny, neither too warm nor too cool,” Volk said. Blooming roses only added to the festive atmosphere.

Once situated in his hotel, the sculptor headed out to greet the candidate at Lincoln’s modest two-story home at Eighth and Jackson streets. On the door of the tan clapboard house with green shutters was a simple black nameplate embossed with silver lettering. It read simply “A. Lincoln,” in the same vein that he signed most of his correspondence.

Lincoln greeted the sculptor warmly, his sinewy hands clasping Volk’s with the familiar double grip. “I am,” Volk exclaimed, “the first man from Chicago, I believe, who has the honor of congratulating you on your nomination for president.”

Volk presented the Lincolns with a cabinet-sized plaster bust of “the animal.” Mary Lincoln placed it on a shelf in the front parlor, a room she had taken great pride in decorating. Flowers were arranged neatly on the tables; pictures were hanging on the wall; and woven, rust-colored drapes with varying hues of golden and butter-yellow thread were tied back at the windows, accenting the formal and subdued light-patterned wallpaper. The Volk bust made a lovely addition.

“What a pleasant home Abe Lincoln has,” one New York newspaper reported. The two men agreed that Volk would cast Lincoln’s hands the following Sunday.

A vast crowd

On Saturday night, Springfield was alive with frenetic political activity. The Republican Nomination Committee arrived to formally present Lincoln the nomination. The clear evening air was pierced by the sounds of locals cheering their favorite son. Cannons boomed. Bonfires blazed. Again bells pealed and flags waved.

With a nod to Lincoln’s political nickname, “the rail-splitter,” 200 to 300 people marched in military fashion with rails on their shoulders, as if they were rifles, from the train depot to the State House. In the House of Representatives, where Lincoln had served as an Illinois assemblyman and delivered his 1858 “House Divided” speech, the rails were stacked like muskets.

A vast crowd descended upon the Lincoln home, and throngs of people entered through the front door and filed into the front parlor to shake Lincoln’s hands. So it proceeded for several hours. The admiring sculptor drank in the totality of the experience.

The next day, at 9 a.m., Volk arrived at Lincoln’s home per their agreement. “I found him ready,” Volk said, “but he looked more grave and serious than he had appeared on the previous days.” Suddenly a national campaign and important business lay ahead. The pensive Lincoln led the sculptor to the brightly wallpapered dining room, where the casts were to be made.

A swollen hand

Volk needed Lincoln to grasp something in his hands in order to make the casts.

Nothing satisfactory to use was found in the house. Lincoln, with his long strides, crossed the dining room, went through the kitchen and out the back door. Crossing the small, cluttered back yard, he proceeded to his woodshed.

Flies buzzed everywhere. The pungent, reeking odor of sour milk, the product of grazing neighborhood milk cows, fouled the air. For a few moments, the sound of a saw could be heard. Momentarily, Lincoln returned to the dining room whittling off the rough edges of a broom handle. The sculptor told Lincoln that a smooth end would not be necessary. “Oh, well,” replied Lincoln in his high-pitched Indiana twang, “I thought I would like to have it nice.”

Lincoln’s right hand was somewhat swollen, puffier than his left, from the excessive handshaking the evening before; the difference was discernible in the casts.

By the time the casting was under way, Lincoln’s mood had lightened. As Volk prepared to cast Lincoln’s left hand, the future president slipped into a familiar role, that of the mirthful raconteur.

“You have heard that they call me a rail-splitter. … Well, it is true that I did split rails, and one day while I was sharpening a wedge on a log, the axe glanced and nearly took off my thumb, and there is the scar you see.”

Gift to the future

Volk’s Lincoln life mask and hand casts were his singular contribution to the art world and Lincoln’s legacy — they became the “daddy” of most Lincoln sculptures. A quarter of a century after Volk cast the original mask and hands, Richard Watson Gilder, poet and editor of Century Magazine captured, in verse, the essence of Volk’s handiwork:

This bronze doth keep

the very form and mould

of our great martyr’s face

Future sculptors would find the Volk mask and hand casts something to which they could react. Together they proved indispensable tools in helping them create their interpretations of the 16th president.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Daniel Chester French and Gutzon Borglum, among others, would draw inspiration not only from the life of Lincoln, but also from the exact physiognomy of the face that stared back at them. Better than any photograph, the mask was the actual form itself; a sculptor’s dream.

Thus, the stage was set for three-quarters of a century of modeling, casting, chiseling and carving of heroic Lincolns in marble and bronze.

James A. Percoco, who teaches history at West Springfield High School, is history-educator-in-residence at American University and a member of the advisoryboard to the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. His forthcoming book, “My Summers With Lincoln: An Odyssey Through America’s Monumental Mania With the Sixteenth President,” will be published in February by Fordham University Press.

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