| The Story Behind the Lincoln Volk Mask
Donated by William J. Cromie, MD, Club President 11/13-11/15. Given at his last Board of Trustees Meeting November 2015.
Sculptor Leonard Volk first met Abraham Lincoln in 1858 when Lincoln was debating Steven Douglass for the US Senate seat from Illinois. Douglass was Volk's brother in law as well as a patron and introduced him to Lincoln. During that first meeting, Volk, with the eye of an artist, could see the character in Lincoln's face and asked him to sit for a bust. Although Lincoln good-naturedly agreed, it took two more years of insistence and perseverance by Volk to finally get Lincoln to sit. Eventually in March 1860, shortly before Lincoln received the Republican nomination for president, Lincoln fulfilled his promise to Volk.
The intention of the sitting was to sculpt a portrait bust and to this end, Lincoln made several trips to Volk's 5th floor Chicago studio. On the first visit, Volk took some measurements and made a mask so that he could continue to work on the bust between sittings. Volk used a poorly prepared thick plaster applied directly to Lincoln's face. Volk described the unfortunate results." 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 hard, as the cheek-bones were higher than the jaw 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 the eyes water." Lincoln who endured the ordeal in typical stoic humor later said that the process "was anything but agreeable."
Despite the painful first sitting, Lincoln enjoyed the sessions as an opportunity to escape the hectic campaign. Volk reported that "He would talk unceasingly telling the funniest and most laughable of stories, but he talked little of politics or religion during those sittings." Lincoln was quoted as confiding "I am bored nearly every time I sit down to a public dining table by someone pitching into me on politics."
The bust progressed quickly and Lincoln was impressed with Volk's effort. After a few sittings Lincoln looked at the bust and proclaimed "There is the animal himself." This was a compliment that Volk would cherish for his entire life. For the next weeks Volk continued to work on the bust and even sculpted a small cabinet sized replica. On May 18th, the day Lincoln received word of his nomination, Volk appeared at Lincoln's Springfield house with the completed cabinet bust as a present for Mrs. Lincoln. Lincoln was alone but happy and excited and greeted Volk warmly. They shook hands and Volk said, "I am the first man from Chicago, I believe, who has the honor of congratulating you on your nomination for President."
Volk would create many fine Lincoln sculptures during his career, but he will be most remembered and appreciated by history for his remarkable mask of Lincoln captured at an historic moment. Through the years, almost every artist and painter attempting to capture Lincoln's elusive image has referenced Volk's mask. Lincoln's secretary John Hay later said of the Volk mask, "the face has a clean firm outline; it is free from fat, but the muscles are hard and full.; the large mobile mouth is ready to speak, to shout, or laugh; the bold curved nose is broad and substantial, with spreading nostrils; it is a face full of life, of energy, of vivid aspiration." It is indeed the face of the man who captured the country's favor and became our 16th president.
This sits on the mantle across from the Front Desk.