Abraham Lincoln is well known for his face: the creases and deep-set eyes, pronounced cheekbones, and close beard. His is undoubtedly our most distinctive presidential visage—strong yet gentle, dignified yet a little odd, and above all, human. Walt Whitman wrote that Lincoln’s face was “so awful ugly it becomes beautiful.”
We encounter Lincoln often, on the penny and the five-dollar bill, chiseled into Mount Rushmore, and molded into many a souvenir. Tall and rangy Lincoln impersonators—perhaps only second in number to Elvis—deliver the Gettysburg Address by memory and strive for uncanny resemblance. But what can his real face tell us?
New 3-D digitization of Lincoln’s life masks offer an unprecedented look at his appearance. Lincoln had two life masks taken, one by Leonard Volk in 1860, before he became the Republican nominee for president, and one in 1865 by Clark Mills, just two months before his assassination. The National Portrait Gallery holds a 1917 copy of each of the masks, and both were recently digitized as part of an ongoing Smithsonian–wide 3-D digitization initiative.
Life masks, like death masks, were created by making a plaster cast directly from a person’s face, and were popular in the nineteenth century for their faithful facsimile of a subject’s features. The Lincoln life masks bookend his presidency nicely, and the changes we can see between them are telling. In just five years, Lincoln’s face becomes gaunt—his cheekbones sharp, his eyes cavernous and hollow, and his skin deeply lined. He looks much older than a man on the eve of his fifty-sixth birthday.
- And famously, Lincoln had grown a beard. David C. Ward, senior historian at the National Portrait Gallery, notes that Lincoln’s facial hair was more than a style choice; it was a signal of his readiness for war. “He is dramatically changing his look in a way that no other president has ever done, as a way of demarcating peace from war. He is putting aside, in Paul’s words ‘childish things’ and going to battle.”
At the time of the 1865 life mask by Clark Mills, the Civil War was winding down with the Union army firmly in control. But over four long years the war had extracted its bloody toll on the nation. An estimated 620,000 soldiers died in the line of duty, roughly two percent of the population. Clark Mills captured forever in plaster the image of a tired and war-weary man—one whose decisions held the lives of young men—and the future of the country—in the balance.
We invite you to explore Lincoln’s life masks in 3-D, along with other objects from the Smithsonian’s collections, on the Smithsonian X 3-D website.
—Benjamin Bloom, National Portrait Galley
Lincoln portrait image:
Abraham Lincoln/Alexander Gardner, 1865/Albumen silver print/National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution