Curator's Choice tells the stories behind prized objects and artifacts from the collections of historical organizations and cultural institutions in Pennsylvania.

One of the most famous likenesses of President Abraham Lincoln is an unusu­al life-mask made in March 1860 by sculptor Leonard W. Volk (1828-1895) in his Chicago studio. Volk measured Lin­coln’s head and upper torso and made a plaster impression of his face, on which he based his exquisite bust of the beard­less future president. Lincoln’s life-mask lay neglected for twenty years, until the 1880s, when bronze copies were cast and sold, at twenty-five thousand dollars each, to a few select individuals to help fund the building of the Lincoln Memori­al in Washington, D.C.

Not as well known, but equally as important is a life-mask made by sculp­tor Clark Mills (1815-1883) on February 11, 1865 – just two months before the president’s assassination. Mills began the process by applying oil on Lincoln’s face. He then applied a thin coat of wet plaster that dried quickly. After fifteen minutes, the sculptor asked the president to twitch his face, and the plas­ter loosened, falling off in large pieces into a cloth. Mills reassembled the frag­ments to form the completed mask.

The life-mask created by Mills is extremely significant because, when compared to Volk’s mold taken five years earlier, it illustrates the great toll that the Civil War had taken on Lincoln’s health. A friend who saw him several weeks after the Mills mask was made noted that he “looked badly and felt badly.” To another friend, Lincoln confid­ed, “I am very unwell.” Because it cap­tured Lincoln at his worst, the Mills life­-mask has been mistakenly described through the years as a death mask.

Born in Onondaga County, New York, Clark Mills was a self-taught artist. He designed and in 1852 cast in an experimental foundry a statue of General Andrew Jackson for the centerpiece of Lafayette Park, opposite the White House. Although he had never seen his subject – or, for that matter, an equestrian statue of such epic proportions – his dar­ing pose of a heroic horse was a mechanical triumph. He later sculpted a colossal statue of George Washington on horse­back, and in his foundry on the outskirts of Washington he cast Freedom by Thomas Crawford (1813-1857), a figure towering nineteen and a half feet and weighing fifteen thousand pounds, which caps the dome of the U.S. Capitol.

Founded in 1895 by Andrew Carnegie, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History counts, among its remarkable holdings, Mills’s plaster life-mask of Lincoln. In addition to documenting the impact on strife and war on Lincoln, the life-mask also discloses facial details not dis­cernible in photographs of the period. The Carnegie Museum’s life-mask was most recently exhibited in Eye of the Storm: Unknown Stories of the Civil War at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center in Pittsburgh.

For information about the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, and its col­lections and exhibitions, write: Carnegie Museum of Natural History, 4400 Forbes Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15213; telephone (412) 622-3131; or visit the Carnegie Museums website. There is an admission charge.