T H E L O S T F A C E O F
WBM october 2019
B Y S I M O N G O N Z A L E Z
BRAHAM 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 mod-eled
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
“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, com-pleted
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.