[LINCOLN, Abraham]. MILLS, Clark (1810-1883), American sculptor. Plaster cast from the original plaster life mask of President Abraham Lincoln, taken in the White House, Washington, D.C., in February 1865.
11 x 8 x 7½ in. approximately. Top of skull inscribed "A Lincoln Clark Mills 1865." Minor rubbing at extremities, slight dust-soiling.
LINCOLN'S TRAGIC LIFE-MASK, VIVIDLY DOCUMENTING THE EFFECTS OF FOUR YEARS OF WAR: "THE LOOK OF ONE ON WHOM SORROW AND CARE HAD DONE THEIR WORST WITHOUT VICTORY"
Lincoln sat for two life-masks; one, the best-known, was taken in April 1860 in Chicago, by sculptor Leonard Volk. The Mills mask, taken two months before the assassination, is the only mask of presidential date, but is far less common than the Volk mask, which was reproduced in large numbers in later years. The Mills mask is also unique in portraying the entire head of Lincoln, while Volk left the back of the head hollow. The Mills mask is notable in preserving details including age wrinkles and pores.
Mills employed a curious technique for his mask of the President. He put a cap over Lincoln's hair and coated Lincoln's face and beard with a light oil, to prevent the plaster sticking to skin or hair. He then applied a thin coat of plaster which dried in about a quarter hour. When dry, Mills asked the subject to twitch his face. When he did so, the plaster broke neatly into large pieces which Mills carefully gathered up. Later, the pieces were reassembled, yielding a perfect likeness. When he saw this mask, the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens at first thought it was a death mask. Volk's 1860 mask, he commented, captures a young, vigorous man, while Mills's mask, is very sad," shockingly portraying the effects of stress and trouble over the last few years. Lincoln's former secretary John Hay, who owned a copy of the Mills life-mask, wrote in 1890 that "the nose is thin, and lengthened by the emaciation of the cheeks; the mouth is fixed like that of an archaic statue; a look as of one whom sorrow and care had done their worst without victory...the whole expression is of unspeakable sadness and all-sufficing strength. Yet the peace is not the dreadful peace of death; it is the peace that passeth understanding" ("Life in the White House in the Time of Lincoln," in Century Illustrated Monthly, November 1890).
Mills had planned to use the mask in a monumental Civil War memorial sculpture, but never completed the work. His son, Theodore A. Mills, cast an unknown, but presumably small number of casts after his father's death. A well-documented example, possibly that owned by Hay, was part of the Ostendorf collection (sold Bonhams and Butterfields, 23 November 2004, lot 9116, $93,250).