Sacred Substantiations: Lincoln Casts and Statuary in the American Imagination
On March 31, 1860, Abraham Lincoln waited in the studio of Leonard Wells Volk as a plaster mold hardened around his face and head. After one hour, Volk removed the mold; he later repeated the process for Lincoln’s hands. The resulting life casts elicited profound emotional reactions in those who saw them. Augustus Saint-Gaudens recognized and capitalized on their invaluable status as candid indexes of Lincoln’s likeness in his 1887 Chicago monument, Abraham Lincoln: The Man. In the words of sculptor Lorado Taft, “It does not seem like a bronze. . . . One stands before it and feels himself in the very presence of America’s soul.”
It was also Saint-Gaudens who amplified the casts’ influence through the manufacture of a prized series of thirty-three bronze replicas. The actual and imagined characteristics of these casts—their sense of possessing a “soul,” and their physical manifestation of Lincoln’s touch—all warrant consideration of their place within the larger tradition of holy relics. This paper posits the Lincoln casts as “contact relics” and establishes the generative potential of such a numinous categorization for American audiences, especially in the wake of the Civil War. Volk’s direct impressions of Lincoln’s visage and hands provided the “blueprints,” so to speak, for an astonishingly wide variety of sculptural manifestations—from the iconic Lincoln Memorial (1920) by Daniel Chester French to Abraham Lincoln (1917) by George Grey Barnard. This essay argues that the cultural impact of this sculptural genealogy is largely indebted to the casts’ material substantiations of Lincoln’s bodily presence and touch. Indeed, by situating these objects between medieval and modern modes of viewing, it will become clear that the casts, as progeny of the original life molds, afforded an affective, even remedial, authenticity for subsequent Lincoln monuments in the American imagination.
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