Sunday, February 08, 2009

Laurence Hutton's "Undying Faces" mesmerizing

I want to thank Laurence Hutton for commenting on my post about the recreation of Abraham Lincoln in the upcoming program "Stealing Lincoln's Body". He pointed me to his blog highlighting famous life and death masks, entitled "Undying Faces". I was mesmerized as I looked at faces of people I had read about but only seen in painted portraits, as they lived, for the most part, before the age of photography.

[Image left - Vice-admiral Horatio Nelson life mask, 1800, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London]

I was particularly interested in the life mask of Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, commander in Britain's most famous naval victory at Trafalgar. I have always found Lord Nelson to be a very handsome man. I certainly understand why Emma Hamilton found him so attractive and have even collected historical figures of him (my favorite is a portrait doll by English artist Ann Parker. I was gratified to see that he was as handsome in reality as he has been portrayed in art.

[Image right - Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, by Lemuel Francis Abbott]

It is not surprising that Lord Nelson had a life mask made of himself. He was, apparently, quite vain, according to an assessment of his personality in Wikipedia:

Nelson was regarded as a highly effective leader, and someone who was able to sympathise with the needs of his men. He based his command on love rather than authority, inspiring both his superiors and his subordinates with his considerable courage, commitment and charisma, dubbed 'the Nelson touch'.[206][207] Nelson combined this talent with an adept grasp of strategy and politics, making him a highly successful naval commander. However, Nelson's personality was complex, often characterised by a desire to be noticed, both by his superiors, and the general public. He was easily flattered by praise, and dismayed when he felt he was not given sufficient credit for his actions.[208] This led him to take risks, and to enthusiastically publicise his resultant successes.[209] Nelson was also highly confident in his abilities, determined and able to make important decisions.[210] His active career meant that he was considerably experienced in combat, and was a shrewd judge of his opponents, able to identify and exploit his enemies' weaknesses.[206] He was often prone to insecurities however, as well as violent mood swings,[211] and was extremely vain: he loved to receive decorations, tributes and praise.[212] Despite his personality, he remained a highly professional leader and was driven all his life by a strong sense of duty. - Wikipedia
Of the Civil War-era death masks in Mr. Hutton's collection, I found the cast of Ulysses S. Grant to look the closest to his portraits in paintings and on our currency. Of course, in his case we have a photograph to compare with it.

[Image left - death mask of President Ulysses S. Grant]

I thought the death mask of Robert E. Lee reflected a sad end to a once great warrior.

His face seemed more elongated and emaciated than portraits I have seen of him.

[Image right - Death mask of Confederate General Robert E. Lee]

Of course, that is the problem when looking at a death mask. It is created at the end of life after, in many cases, wasting illnesses. In Lee's case:

"On September 28, 1870, Lee suffered a stroke that left him without the ability to speak. Lee died from the effects of pneumonia, a little after 9 a.m., October 12, 1870, two weeks after the stroke, in Lexington, Virginia. He was buried underneath Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University, where his body remains today. According to J. William Jones' Personal Reminiscences, Anecdotes, and Letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee, his last words, on the day of his death, were "Tell Hill he must come up. Strike the tent," but this is debatable because of conflicting accounts. Since Lee's stroke resulted in aphasia, last words may have been impossible. Lee was treated homeopathically for this illness.[42]" - Wikipedia
It's as if you can see the profound sadness on his face, even in death, for the effects of his surrender at Appamatox and the brutal "reconstruction" that followed.

"Lee attended a meeting of ex-Confederates in 1870, during which he expressed regrets about his surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, given the effects of Republican Reconstruction policy on the South. Speaking to former Confederate Governor of Texas Fletcher Stockdale, he said:

Governor, if I had foreseen the use those people [Yankees] designed to make of their victory, there would have been no surrender at Appomattox Courthouse; no sir, not by me. Had I foreseen these results of subjugation, I would have preferred to die at Appomattox with my brave men, my sword in my right hand.[39]- Wikipedia