The Lost Face of Lincoln

by Simon Gonzalez
October 2019

The fascinating story of a life mask made of Abraham Lincoln before his nomination for the presidency, and how it came to North Carolina.

Abraham Lincoln is sitting in the room with us. He turns his head slightly, and the suggestion of a smile appears. He looks in the other direction, and he appears sad. The hint of a tear might even be forming in the corner of his eye.

The Abraham Lincoln looking out over the North Carolina Gallery of Fine Art is a bronze bust, situated on a rotating pedestal that allows imaginative viewers to glimpse different facets of Lincoln's personality as it is turned. While more than 150 years removed from the Abe Lincoln who occupied the Oval Office, this Abe Lincoln is a direct descendant.

The bronze was cast from a terra cotta mask created in 1955 by Robert Merrell Gage, a noted Lincoln sculptor. Gage modeled it on an actual mask of Lincoln's face done by fellow sculptor Leonard Volk in 1860, shortly before Lincoln's presidential nomination. Lincoln had agreed to sit for a bust. Volk took measurements of his head and shoulders and made a plaster cast of his face to reduce the number of sittings.

"This is his face," John Short says. "This is to scale; this is his face. There's not a lot of artistic determination in it."

Short, a Raleigh-based art conservator and restorer, cofounded the North Carolina Gallery of Fine Art with Wilmington businessman and art collector John Clell Hamm. The gallery, currently housed in Hamm's hearing aid center in the hospital district, was created to showcase the bronze bust.

"The Lincoln [mask] led to the formation of the gallery," Hamm says. "We had to have a vehicle to share it."

When Volk died in 1895, another artist acquired the mask and made reproductions, which he then made available to other sculptors.

"The artist who got the original mask from the Lincoln estate, he wanted to share it with the other artists who were doing Lincoln," Short says. "There was a lot of interest in Lincoln at the turn of the century. That's when the Lincoln Memorial was going up. There were a lot of statues being done."

One of the plaster copies of Volk's 1860 mask ended up in the hands of Gage, one of the foremost sculptors of his time and a Lincoln aficionado. Gage was a student of Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum. His first commissioned work, completed in 1918, was a statue of Lincoln that still stands on the grounds of the Kansas state capitol in Topeka.

Gage made his own copy of the mask, a terra cotta version. It became the reference for Gage's Lincoln work and remained in his studio until his death in 1981, when it was acquired by a collector.

"We don't have proof of this, but Gage probably got his copy through his teacher, Gutzon Borglum," Short says.

Short has been fascinated with Lincoln since the 1970s, when he held another mask of Lincoln's face. That mask is commonly referred to as a death mask because it was taken a couple of months before his assassination.

"When I put that death mask in my hand, I was a boy of 24," Short says. "As the years progressed, I couldn't get it out of my mind. It just kept haunting me and haunting me."

Short's affinity for Lincoln was affirmed on a visit to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., in the late 1980s. As he walked around the huge statue of the titan of American history and read quotes from the man who shepherded the Union through the Civil War, Short was overcome by emotion.

"I got in the monument and sat on the floor crying because it was so moving," Short says. I couldn't believe myself. I was an adult man, having to sit on the floor."

In 1993, the Gage mask was up for sale at an auction in Pasadena, California. Short was in attendance.

"When the terra cotta came up, it was like I had found what I had been searching for all that time," he says. "I knew I'd spend every last penny to buy it."

Short talks about the acquisition -- or the day "when the terra cotta came into my life" -- in almost reverent, perhaps holy, terms. He describes the auction as a room full of millionaires. He knew he couldn't compete with such financial heavy hitters, yet somehow he prevailed; the Lincoln mask was his.

"I didn't find him, he found me," Short says. "For some reason, I was able to get it. It was just one of those things. It was meant for me to have it, for whatever reason. When I got it, then I was complete; I knew I would never sell it. And I knew I'd have it until I died."

The mask has held pride of place in Short's bedroom ever since.

"I have my grandmother's dresser, with all of the family pictures. My uncles and aunts, mother and father," Short says. "And Mr. Lincoln is right in the center of that. That's how he's been in my life all of these years."

As Short studied the mask, he noticed how Lincoln's face changed with the light and perspective.

"Once a week or so I would turn the Lincoln because it would give me a different view," he says. "Sometimes there's a slight smile on his face, other times you think he's tearing. Depending on your mood and the lighting, it's actually interactive."

The mask is almost an exact replica of Volk's original plaster cast. It is Lincoln's face, pre-inauguration, before he grew his iconic whiskers. It is Lincoln's chin, nose, cheekbones and forehead. It details the president's asymmetrical face. One side droops a little, perhaps the result of a childhood illness, historians speculate.

But Gage was able to do a little artistic interpretation. Lincoln's eyes would have been closed when the plaster was applied to his face. Where there would have been blanks on the original, Gage was able to imbue emotion.

Short and Hamm believe Gage's work was inspired by another famous American, the poet Walt Whitman.

Whitman, who often saw the president on summer trips to the Lincoln Cottage on a hill overlooking Washington, wrote these words: "I see very plainly Abraham Lincoln's dark brown face, with the deep cut lines, the eyes, always to me with a deep latent sadness in the expression."

Short has spent countless hours researching the mask, securing the provenance, tracing the journey from Volk to Gage to himself, and gathering all available information on everyone involved.

"Even though I'm 70, I'm learning more about Lincoln on an everyday basis -- more details," he says. "It never ceases to amaze me at the depth of Lincoln's thought patterns and heart."

He has about 700 pages of research just on Gage.

"Gage was fascinated in his life with two people," Short says. "Lincoln, of course, was preeminent. The other was Walt Whitman. It would be inconceivable that Gage was not aware of Whitman's description of Lincoln. We think that this is even more special because this is Gage's interpretation of what Walt Whitman was trying to say. Deep cut eyes, sadness in expression. That is this bronze."

Even though the mask dates to before Lincoln's first inauguration, Short imagines the artist's interpretation coming from a later period.

"Gage considered him a man of sorrows," Short says. "Clell said, 'How would you describe that expression?' I said poignant would be one way. But I've always seen it as him standing in the White House, looking out the window, and a soldier comes in with a piece of paper. And the paper says Chickamauga lost, 30,000 dead. And he drops the paper on the floor and looks out the window with this expression. To me, that's what it was, that's what it represented."

The mask also represented the culmination of what seemed like almost a lifelong quest. It would remain in his bedroom, in the center of all the other important people in his life, for him to enjoy, every morning and evening, for the rest of his life.

But a few years ago, Short began to view it in a different light. This was a lost piece of American art, and a piece of American history. Was it selfish to keep this true representation of arguably the country's greatest president to himself? Was there a responsibility to share it?

In 2016, Short was commissioned to restore a painting for the owners of Carolina Bronze in Seagrove, North Carolina. Seagrove is justifiably famous for the many world-class potters who call the area home, but the foundry has earned a reputation of its own. Its casts and sculptures appear all over the world.

While he was restoring the painting, Short discussed his terra cotta mask. He and the owners discussed casting it in bronze and he soon held the first of a planned 1,865 copies. Short and Hamm, a longtime friend, then formed the gallery to display and sell the bronzes.

"John reached out to me a couple of years ago and said this is a stunning likeness, and it's really special," Hamm says. "At the time he knew nothing, he didn't know who Gage was. We decided to move forward with this project even before we knew this amazing backstory. It's not just a piece of art. It's a piece of history. This is an American masterpiece, as far as we see it."

Shortly after being cast, the bronze began to garner attention outside North Carolina. Washburn University, Gage's alma mater, purchased the first copy.

"They paid us to ship it, but we said it's the first sale, we want to hand-deliver it," Short says. "They combined it with a lecture by [Lincoln historian] Harold Holzer. That was the first time he had seen it. He immediately changed his speech to open with the Volk mask and how it was done."

Holzer, one of America's foremost Lincoln scholars, was fascinated with the Gage mask. "Harold Holzer said he was familiar with almost all of the Lincoln statues -- he in fact sent us a book from the '30s listing all of the Lincoln statues," Short says. "Gage was in the book for his statue at the Kansas statehouse. But this was not."

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of the 2005 book "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," saw the bronze in Chapel Hill.

"Doris Kearns Goodwin went crazy over the fact he didn't have his beard," Short says. "This is the pre-White House Lincoln. These are the images of Lincoln that are so rare."

Hamm admits he doesn't have the depth of knowledge as the historians, or even Short. But as he's done the research, he's gained a fresh appreciation of Lincoln and the Gage mask.

"I'm just a student of history. I love our country," he says. "I was probably just as drawn to Jefferson or Washington as Lincoln. I understood his significance. But this path we're on has brought me closer to Lincoln. I have a new appreciation for him as a leader. Coming from a business perspective, an entrepreneur, the thing I take away is the significant weight of keeping the country together. The Christ-like side of Lincoln. The selflessness of him. This mask makes me appreciate that. Then delving more deeply into his history and what he's done just reinforces that."

The bronze will receive an even wider audience when Short and Hamm present it to a room full of historians and scholars at the annual Lincoln Forum Symposium at Gettysburg, P.A., Nov. 18.

"This journey that Clell and I are on, we call it the long and winding road because it started in the '70s with me as a young man having that put in my hand and then later in life being able to actually see this particular rendition of Lincoln," Short says. "It spoke to me so deeply. I was able to keep it for myself. And now, at the end of my life, we've realized by accident almost what we've really uncovered. This lost face of Lincoln."


A. Lincoln

Four Years and 42 Days

By Pat Bradford

In the last year of peace in America, 1860, there were 4 million enslaved men, women and children. When President Abraham Lincoln takes office March 4, 1861, seven southern states have already left the Union.

By the end of 1864, the American Civil War has been raging for close to four years. A staggering 620,000 soldiers have died on both sides. The last major open seaport in the South is Wilmington, North Carolina. Union access into and up the Cape Fear River to Wilmington can only be achieved by taking Federal Point or Confederate Point with the well-fortified Confederate garrison Fort Fisher and its Battery Buchanan on the point.

In the second of two Union assaults, that leave over 2,000 soldiers killed and wounded, Fort Fisher and Battery Buchanan were captured January 13-15, 1865.

(The remaining Cape Fear River Defense System batteries and entrenchments soon fall as does Fort Anderson in Brunswick County by February 19, 1865.)

Following great political maneuvering by Lincoln, the 13thAmendment to the Constitution of the United States of America passes the Houseon January 31, 1865. (Once ratified, it abolishes slavery.)

Three weeks later, February 11-22, 1865, Wilmington falls to Union forces that include 1,600 United States Colored Troops in five regiments at the Battle of Forks Road.

Forty-six days later, on April 9, 1865, the War Between the States ends with the South's surrender.

Six days later, Lincoln, the 16thpresident of the United States, is dead, killed by an assassin's bullet. The incumbent president's second term lasts just 42 days, from March 4 - April 14, 1865.

Portrait of the Artist

American sculptor Robert Merrell Gage's association with Abraham Lincoln began in 1916, when the Kansas native was commissioned to create a Lincoln statue for the grounds of the state capitol in Topeka.

There was some trepidation about giving the commission to a young artist with a limited portfolio, but Gage was a student of the great Gutzon Borglum, who would go on to create the Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

"The legislature wondered about giving all this money to a young guy," John Short says. "Gutzon Borglum came to Kansas and testified on behalf of Gage, saying he was his prot?g? and saying they couldn't find anybody better. They maintained a lifelong friendship."

Lincoln continued to feature prominently in Gage's work after the Kansas statue was completed in 1918. He created the terra cotta mask now owned by Short in 1955. The mask is a replica of an original face mask of Lincoln, done by Leonard Volk in 1860.

The mask became the model of a clay bust of Lincoln that Gage created for a documentary film called "The Face of Lincoln," which won an Academy Award in 1956 for Best Short Subject.

"In the movie, at the very beginning, Gage holds up the mask and discusses Lincoln's face," Short says.

Gage begins the bust by creating the pre-nomination, clean-shaven Lincoln. As the film progress, Gage adds whiskers and wrinkles, ending with Lincoln as he looked after the Civil War and shortly before his assassination. All the while, Gage narrates facts about the president's life. His admiration of and affection for Lincoln is evident throughout the film.

Gage points out the asymmetry of Lincoln's face.

"In the movie, Gage mentions that one side is his legal, and one side his humanitarian, Christ-like side," Short says. "When you look at it and turn it you can see the difference. It is special in that way."

After winning the Oscar for "The Face of Lincoln," Gage did a similar film called "The Face of Jesus" that was nominated for an Academy Award in 1962. He also shot four 30-minute documentaries from his Southern California studio for PBS called "Visits with the Sculptor."

 


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