Lincoln in Art: The Leonard and Douglas Volk Collection

Copy of Volk's Life Mask of Abraham Lincoln
Copy of Volk’s Life Mask of Abraham Lincoln

Leonard Volk was an American sculptor famous for making one of only two life masks of Abraham Lincoln. Volk was born in Wellstown (now Wells), New York, in 1828, and his family later moved to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, for his father’s trade as a marble cutter. Volk joined his father in this work, and he later went to St. Louis in 1848 to study drawing and sculpture.

In 1852 Volk married Emily Clarissa King Barlow, whose cousin, Senator Stephen A. Douglas, supported Volk’s art and provided financial assistance for Volk to study in Rome. Volk settled in Chicago upon his return and opened a studio there in 1857. Douglas also introduced Volk to Abraham Lincoln, and Volk spent years making close studies of both Lincoln and Douglas throughout their political careers.

Douglas introduced Volk to Lincoln in 1858 when they were running against each other for the Illinois seat in the U.S. Senate, and Volk asked Lincoln to sit for him so he could make a bust. Lincoln agreed, and two years later during his visit to Chicago in April of 1860, he sat for Volk. Volk made a life mask using wet plaster to reduce the number of sittings that would be needed for a bust. The life mask and subsequent bust that Volk created became extremely useful to later artists who depicted Lincoln in sculptures or paintings. Volk recalled the process in an extract from “The Lincoln Life Mask and How It Was Made”:

Volk asked Lincoln if he could make casts of his hands as well to use for works in sculpture, and once again Lincoln agreed. He sat for Volk on May 20, 1860, two days after the Republican Party nominated Lincoln for the presidency. Volk reminisced of the experience:

By previous appointment I was to cast Mr. Lincoln's hands on the Sunday following the nomination, at nine a.m. I found him ready at his house. I wished him to hold something in his right hand, and he looked for apiece of pasteboard, but could find none. I told him a round stick would do as well as anything, thereupon he went to the woodshed and I heard the saw go, and he soon returned to the dining-room (where I did the casting) while whittling off the end of a piece of broom-handle. I remarked to him that he need not whittle off the edges. 'Oh, well,' he said, 'I thought I would like to have it nice.' The right hand appeared swollen as compared to the left, on account of the excessive hand-shaking the evening before. This difference is distinctly shown in the casts.

Volk went on to build a reputation as a leading figure in Chicago’s arts scene through his work and teaching. In 1866, he and other artists formed the Chicago Academy of Design, which would later become the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He created numerous portraits, busts, and monuments through his career, including his Douglas monument in Chicago and statues of Lincoln and Douglas in the capitol at Springfield.

Abraham Lincoln, head-and-shoulders portrait, seated, facing right, by Douglas Volk c. 1922
Portrait of Abraham Lincoln by Douglas Volk, c. 1922

Leonard and Emily’s son, Stephen A. Douglas Volk (who went by Douglas Volk), was born in 1856 and followed in his father’s path to became a noted figure in the art world as a figure and portrait painter. Douglas grew up in Chicago, and at the age of fourteen he moved to Europe to study art as his father had. When he returned to the United States in 1879, he worked as an instructor at the Cooper Union, the Art Students League of New York, and the National Academy of Design. In 1886 Douglas helped establish the Minneapolis School of Fine Art, Minnesota, and served as its director until 1893. Douglas had three of his works exhibited at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, one of which was awarded a medal. Douglas also completed a series of portraits of Abraham Lincoln throughout his career.

Copy of Volk's Abraham Lincoln hand casts
Copy of Volk’s Abraham Lincoln hand casts

The Leonard and Douglas Volk Collection, 1872-1953 (MS 400) contains personal and professional papers of Leonard and Douglas Volk, including correspondence, publications, sketches, and other materials. Douglas’s materials are primarily connected to the later years of his career with a focus on his Abraham Lincoln portraits. The IHLC also holds copies of Leonard Volk’s face casts of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, along with a copy of Lincoln’s hand casts and a sculpting mallet used by Volk.



IHLC Resources

The Lincoln Centenary, 1809 February twelfth 1909: Abraham Lincoln in Sculpture. Milwaukee, WI: Hennecke Studios, 1909. Call number: 973.7 L63EL6384

Lincoln Memorabilia. New York, NY: Parke-Bernet Galleries, Inc., 1953. Call number: 973.7 L63E3V88L

Rankin, Henry Bascom. Our first American, Abraham Lincoln: An appeal to the citizens of our state and country and The Lincoln life mask: with some comments and corrections on Leonard W. Volk’s Century magazine article. Springfield, IL: Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 1915. Call number: 973.7 L63ER16O

Volk, Leonard W. History of the Douglas Monument at Chicago. Chicago, IL: The Chicago Legal News Company, 1880. Call number: 973.71 D74Wv

Additional Resources

“Casts of Abraham Lincoln’s Face and Hands.” The National Museum of American History, Smithsonian.

“Douglas Volk.” National Gallery of Art, 2018.

“Leonard Wells Volk.” Dictionary of American Biography. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936.

“Volk, Douglas.” Marquis Who Was Who in America 1607-1984, Marquis Who’s Who LLC, 2009.

Lagasse, Paul. “Volk, Leonard Wells.” The Columbia Encyclopedia, 8th ed. Columbia University Press, 2018.


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