P O RT R A I T O F T H E A R T I S T UT Gage was able to do a
UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
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 protégé 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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little artistic interpretation.
Lincoln’s eyes would have
been closed when the plas-ter
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 prov-enance,
tracing the journey from Volk to
Gage to himself, and gathering all avail-able
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 incon-ceivable
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 imag-ines
the artist’s interpretation coming
from a later period.
“Gage considered him a man of sor-rows,”
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 Face of Lincoln.” 1962.