What is a Life Mask?
A life mask is a true 3D representation of a live person’s face
produced from a cast. The technique has been used for centuries
on both living, and deceased, subjects (the latter known as Death Masks).
The process is quite simple. Plaster, wax or clay is used to cover
the face or head of the subject. Once the casting material “sets-
up” (dries), it is carefully removed, resulting in an exact
‘negative’ mold of the person’s features. From this negative, a
positive casting is made, producing the Life Mask.
Life masks have been used for many purposes. Some to capture the
features of a person during life for use by artists and
sculptures to produce busts, statues, etc. Scientists used to
make life, and death masks, of criminals to study their features,
looking for a commonality which would explain their behaviour.
One industry that makes life masks to this day is the
entertainment industry. Following the centuries-old traditions of
the stage, masks are made from film and television performers
today to assist make up artists with their work without actually
having to have the actors present.
Abraham Lincoln had two life masks produced during his life. The first
was cast by sculptor / artist Leonard W. Volk in Chicago in March of 1860,
just prior to Lincoln receiving the Presidential nomination from the
Republican party. He sat for Mr. Volk, who took detailed measurements of
Lincoln’s facial features and upper body. He then made a plaster cast of
Lincoln’s face. As Lincoln did not have a beard at the time (he did not start
growing it until the winter of 1861 during his trip to Washington DC to take
office). The Life Mask shows a young face (age 51) as compared to the second
Life Mask taken five years later in 1865.
1860 Life Mask by 1865 Life Mask by
Leonard W. Volk Clark Mills
After five years of Civil War, and a difficult presidency, Lincoln was
re-elected to office for a second term.
As per the Smithsonian Institute…
“On February 11, 1865, Abraham Lincoln consented to having
another life mask made of him by the sculptor Clark Mills.
The process began with an application of oil over Lincoln’s face,
followed by the application of a thin coat of wet plaster paste that
dried quickly. After fifteen minutes, Mills asked Lincoln to twitch his
face, and the plaster loosened, falling off in large pieces into
a cloth. The pieces were then reassembled to form the finished
mask. Comparing this mask with the one done in 1860 by Leonard
Volk, it is clear how great a toll the Civil War had taken on
Lincoln’s health. One friend who saw him a few weeks after the
mask was made noted that he “looked badly and felt badly.” To
another friend Lincoln confided, “I am very unwell.”
If you are interested in Abraham Lincoln, you should read these interviews by two Lincoln experts:
(posted on November 10, 2008)
(posted on December 08, 2008)