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Bro. Leonard Wells Volk

MASON - ARTIST - SCULPTOR

Bro. Leonard Wells Volk (Novemer 7, 1828 - August 19, 1895) was an American artist and sculptor best known for making a life mask and hand casts of American President Abraham Lincoln.

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Bro. Volk was born at Wellstown (now Wells), Hamilton County, New York.  He first followed the trade of a marble cutter with his father in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.  In 1848 he opened a studio in St. Louis, Missouri, and in 1855 was sent by his wife’s cousin, politician Stephen A. Douglas, to study in Rome. Returning to America in 1857, he settled in Chicago where he helped establish the Academy of Design, which he headed for eight years.

The following are among Volk’s principal commissioned works:

  • The Douglas monument at Chicago, Illinois
  • The Soldiers and Sailors Monument at Rochester, New York;
  • Statues of Abraham Lincoln and his noted political rival, Stephen A. Douglas.
  • A statue of General James Shields in Statuary Hall, U.S. Capitol, and;
  • Statues of Elihu B. Washburne, Zachariah Chandler and David Davis.
  • In 1860 he made a life mask of Lincoln, of whom only one other was ever made (by Clark Mills in 1865), in addition to a pair of hand casts.

His son, Stephen Douglas Volk (1856-1935), was a portrait painter who studied under master Jean-Léon Gérôme in Paris and joined the Society of American Artists in 1880 and National Academy of Design in 1899.

In the spring of 1860, during Abraham Lincoln’s visit to Chicago, Volk asked him to sit for a bust.  When Lincoln agreed, the artist decided to start by making a life mask.  Lincoln found the process of letting wet plaster dry on his face, followed by a skin-stretching removal process, “anything but agreeable.”  But he endured it with good humor, and when he saw the final bust, he was quite pleased, declaring it “the animal himself.”  The 1860 life mask and bust were later used as the basis for further editions by Volk, including a full-length statue of Lincoln, as well as by other sculptors.

Volk’s last piece of commissioned work was a statue of himself beneath which he is buried at Chicago’s Rosehill Cemetery.  Seated as if relaxing on a park bench, his hat at his side, this sculpture is remarkably detailed down to the buttons on his vest and his fingers resting gently on the top of his cane in artful perpetuity.

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Here are images of the original Petition for Degrees in Masonry of Leonard Wells Volk located in the Oriental Lodge No. 33 archives by Wor. Bro. Paul A. Scheeler, P.M. Submitted on January 5, 1866 and completed in the handwriting of  the petitioner, Volk lists his place of residence as Chicago, age as 37, and occupation as sculptor.  He paid a petition fee of $5.00 and  was recommended by Bros. B. F. Patrick, W. A. Thrall and George F. Haums.  Volk’s Investigating Committee members were R. W. Dunham, William W. Bagrington and Hiram M. Chase, who reported favorably on February 2, 1866.

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Upon being raised to the Sublime Degree of Master Mason in 1866, Bro. Volk was presented with a large, ornate “patent” which enabled him to prove himself a Master Mason when traveling in other jurisdictions.

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Volk Patent provided courtesy of Wor. Bro. Eric W. Diamond, P.M.

Philip Schwartz