The President James A. Garfield Death Mask

On display in the James A. Garfield National Historic Site visitor center is the bronze death mask and hand of President James A. Garfield. The mask weighs 7 1/2 pounds, and the hand 2 1/2 lbs.

It was common practice into the 20th century for a plaster facial impression to be made moments after the death of a famous person. Sometimes the hand was cast as well. The purpose was to capture the last image of the person to use in later portraits or statues. After President Garfield died on September 19, 1881, the family asked the famous sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, to make a death mask of President Garfield. 

This death mask of Presdient Garfield was sculpted by renowned sculptor Augusts St. Gaudens after the President's death on Sept. 19, 1881.  The President's face appears gaunt; he had lost about 100 pounds between being shot on July 2 and his death.  This death mask can be viewed in the visitor center museum at James A. Garfield National Historic Site.  (Photo courtesy of Jim Steinhart)

This death mask of President Garfield was made by renowned sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens after the President’s death on Sept. 19, 1881. The President’s face appears gaunt; he had lost nearly 100 pounds between being shot on July 2 and his death 80 days later. This death mask can be viewed in the visitor center museum at James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio. (Photo courtesy of Jim Steinhart)

To create the mold, Saint-Gaudens would first have covered the deceased President’s face with lard and then painted several layers of plaster over it. When the plaster dried, the sculptor would have removed the plaster impression and taken it to his studio and used it to create a mold, which would later be used to create another mold that would be cast in bronze. The family had the last mold destroyed so that no other copies could be made.

Saint-Gaudens was an Irish-born American sculptor of the Beaux Arts period. He designed monuments to Civil War heroes such as William Tecumseh Sherman, Abraham Lincoln, and Robert Gould Shaw. He designed the $20 double eagle gold coin and the $10 Indian head gold coin.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, show here in his studio, is probably the best-known American sculptor (though he was born in Ireland).  Today, you can visit his home and studio, which are preserved as Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, New Hampshire.  Find it online at www.nps.gov/saga.  (Smithsonian Institution American Art Museum)

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, show here in his studio, is probably the best-known American sculptor (though he was born in Ireland). Today, you can visit his home and studio, which are preserved as Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, New Hampshire. Find it online at http://www.nps.gov/saga. (Smithsonian Institution American Art Museum)

Masks have been in existence since the time of the Egyptian pharoah Tutankhamun, whose solid gold burial mask is an object of extreme beauty. At the end of many remarkable lives, historic figures such as Shakespeare, Washingon, Napoleon, Newton, Beethoven, Lincoln, and Lenin were immortalized with death masks.

Since the 13th century, death masks have helped sculptors of tomb effigies, but in medieval France and England real death masks were used for the royal funeral effigies that lay in state. Only Britsh examples still exist, because those in France were destroyed during the French Revolution.

This plaster of one of Saint-Gaudens' most famous sculptures is on display at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in New Hampshire.  It depicts Col. Robert Gould Shaw (on horseback) leading the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the all-black unit famously depicted in the popular film "Glory."  (Boston College)

This plaster of one of Saint-Gaudens’ most famous sculptures is on display at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in New Hampshire. It depicts Col. Robert Gould Shaw (on horseback) leading the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the all-black unit famously dramatized  in the popular film “Glory.” (Boston College)

Before the widespread availability of photography, the death mask was also used as a forensic tool to aid relatives in identifying a desceased body if the loved one was a missing person who had already been buried. One such mask recorded the face of an unidentified 16 year-old woman found drowned in the Seine in Paris in the 1880s. She was considered so beautiful that reproductions of the mask became very popular. In 1960, the face of ResuciAnni, the world’s first CPR training mannequin, was modeled after this drowned young woman.

-Pat Coil, Volunteer

Presidential Postage

The subject of this blog is postage stamps that commemorate President Garfield and other presidents he knew. Enjoy!

The first stamps to commemorate the President were issued in 1882, the year after his assassination and death. Here are images of the three versions.

GarfieldStamp1

GarfieldStamp2GarfieldStamp3He was commemorated on U. S. postage stamps in 1888, 1890, 1894, and 1898 in the following design.

GarfieldStamp4

A new depiction of the President appeared in 1902.

GarfieldStamp5

In 1938, an American Presidents series was created, depicting all the deceased presidents up through Calvin Coolidge. Included here are stamps from that series that illustrate President Garfield and several other presidents with whom he was familiar. Chester A. Arthur, his Vice President, succeeded him.

Lincoln StampAJohnsonStampUSGrantStamp

HayesStamp

       GarfieldStamp6          ArthurStamp

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

-Alan Gephardt, Park Ranger