History's Truest Portraits
May 8, 2006 7:50 AM   Subscribe

The Laurence Hutton Collection Of Life & Death Masks is one of the more fascinating collections of historical artifacts out there, consisting of more than 100 plaster casts of the live and dead faces of the great, near great, and famous figures stretching from the 19th Century all the way back to the 15th. Laurence Hutton, an author born in New York in 1843, collected these masks all his life, hunting them down in thrift shops, curio shops, private collections and even garbage dumps, and after his death the collection was inherited by Princeton University. For years the masks sat collecting dust in cardboard boxes, and were available for viewing by appointment only. However, someone recently had the obvious idea to make digital photos of the masks and put them on line, making these riveting portraits available for all to see. This is a subject that has always fascinated me, for a life mask is the truest portrait we have of many historical personages. I have my own small collection of such masks; a life mask of Beethoven and Chopin, and even Paul McCartney (I am, surprise, a musician.)
posted by Nicholas West (29 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Those olde English ones, Shakespeare, Liz and Mary look like fakes. And Robert I of Scotland...not sure they got there in time with the old plaster.

Cool site though.
posted by jsavimbi at 8:01 AM on May 8, 2006

Newton looks like one of those Easter Island statues.
posted by three blind mice at 8:06 AM on May 8, 2006

Well, the few masks purporting to be of Shakespeare that exist are the subject of ongoing raging controversy even today. The mask in this particular collection was taken from a portrait bust on his tomb, which is said to have been modeled from an actual life mask of his face. So things get a little hazy with 'ol Bill.

The masks of the olde English Queens have probably been considerably stylyized by the sculptors, representing as they do exalted figures. Most of the later masks are true warts 'n all casts showing exactly how there people looked.
posted by Nicholas West at 8:08 AM on May 8, 2006

The masks of Elizabeth and Mary were taken from effigies on their tombs, or so it says. Excellent link - absolutely fascinating. I never would have known that was James Dean.
posted by iconomy at 8:09 AM on May 8, 2006

I wonder how they did the ones that have the ears.
posted by small_ruminant at 8:17 AM on May 8, 2006

I knew I'd seen this collection before. Not a double though and still amazing.
posted by soundofsuburbia at 8:30 AM on May 8, 2006

I love that I just saw Goethe's face.

Last year at the Fogg Museum at Harvard they had Walt Whitman's death mask (made by Thomas Eakins) out on display. It was very moving, in that through the extreme gauntess of the face you could see just how ill he had been, and for how long, but at the same time it was still that face.

It also featured scraggly little bits of Whitman hair stuck in the plaster, which made it a little bit gross.
posted by nflorin at 9:29 AM on May 8, 2006

Absolutely amazing. Thank you.
posted by kalimac at 9:50 AM on May 8, 2006

I ran across some more recent lifemasks.
posted by SteveInMaine at 10:03 AM on May 8, 2006

I wonder what is up with Lincoln's eyes...
posted by nomisxid at 10:05 AM on May 8, 2006

By the way, in case anyone is missing out on this, the photos in the Laurence Hutton collection come in two magnifications; first the smallish one that loads when you click the name link, but then if you click that picture, you get a giant-size image for a good close look.
posted by Nicholas West at 10:12 AM on May 8, 2006

They probably put cotton balls or something on his eyes before applying the plaster.
posted by crunchland at 10:13 AM on May 8, 2006

"I wonder what is up with Lincoln's eyes..."

Lincoln found the life-casting process uncomfortable and a bit scary, and did not want his eyes covered with the plaster. Therefore the sculptor left holes in the mask mold over the eyes, and filled the holes with cotton or something when casting the mask.
posted by Nicholas West at 10:17 AM on May 8, 2006

These are fascinating and more than a little spooky. This art form seems to really bring out the asymmetrical nature of the face... especially in many of the death masks. Or maybe they were just getting a little squishy.
posted by kimdog at 10:55 AM on May 8, 2006

These masks (on both sites) are really creepy, and raise questions about just where does likeness reside? If there were no names attached to the masks in the collection of contemporary celebrities, how many would you be able to identify? Maybe only... I can't think of any. Great beauties like Katheryn Hepburn, Drew Barrymore and Julia Roberts come off looking like Oliver Cromwell. For these movie stars, looking at their life masks must be a sobering confrontation with mortality. The overwhelming impression is of walking past row after row of corpses in open coffins. Poor John Candy, his face solemn and stilled. Makes you think of Yorick's skull. My favorite of them all is Sir Walter Scott, with his face looking almost boneless -- a living spectre. Then there's John Calhoun, whose bone structure looks like it will outlive the Joshua trees. By far the most successful in bringing an elusive personality to life, however, are the Beethovens. Somehow, you can almost see the storms, simplicity, beauty and abstraction of his music in those features - which, though dead, still seem to roil, like bristling cumuli.
posted by Faze at 11:17 AM on May 8, 2006

Extraordinary. It's so amazing to 'see' Beethoven's, Cromwell's, Audobon's, Disraeli's, Goethe's, Moore's, Napoleon 1's, Whitman's faces! Thanks Nicholas West. It would be interesting reading about the acquisition of each mask.
posted by nickyskye at 11:18 AM on May 8, 2006

Wonderful links everybody. The lifemasks of filmstars are particularly interesting in this context.

Best of the web indeed.
By the way: this proves that a good post does not need more than one link

As a student I once gave a fellowstudent the 1927 version of the book Das Ewige Antlitz by Ernst Benkard. Full of photographs of eary deathmasks. And very impressive in its austere formal old fashioned binding.
A very gothic book in more senses than one; it was also printed in gothic font.
Unfortunately I can't find online any photographs out of this book for your amusement.

I remember that the death part of the death masks was very noticable in that the tissue around the mouth had noticably sagged giving a very distinct expression that I encountered again when I saw my grandmother in her coffin.
(in the Netherlands no form of embalming is used)
posted by jouke at 11:38 AM on May 8, 2006

Fascinating. Thanks.
posted by semmi at 12:28 PM on May 8, 2006

This is awesome. Thanks.

I think Dante Alighieri is especially creepy.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 3:53 PM on May 8, 2006

Love these - I do a little sculpting and have been trying to find some good large images of various parts of the face I have trouble with (eye and nose area especially) - so this is wildly useful. Not to mention fascinating. Great link.

Glad that nomisxid asked about Lincoln - I was wondering about the eyes too.
posted by batgrlHG at 5:29 PM on May 8, 2006

great resource--thanks for posting this.
posted by josephtate at 6:14 PM on May 8, 2006

"The masks of Elizabeth and Mary were taken from effigies on their tombs, or so it says."

I am fascinated with these types of masks as it allows you to really see what some historical figures looked like before photography. My interest actually started at Mary Queen of Scots house in Scotland where they have a museum with several death masks on display. A little creepy, but very interesting.
posted by UseyurBrain at 6:15 PM on May 8, 2006

Nicholas West, you're right, from what I've read (while doing my PhD on Shakespeare--but not on images of him, a whole field unto itself). As for Shakespeare, the Trinity church bust from which this mask was cast was erected in 1623 (Shakespeare died in 1616). It was commissioned by his son-in-law, a doctor of means, but it's likely a stylized depiction rather than an accurate cast of any kind (in other images Shakespeare ain't nearly so smooth looking). The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has a little info that summarizes the problem. But there's not a single image of Shakespeare that exists that doesn't have some doubt surrounding it. New ones pop constantly too: one scholar says "Aha!" while another, usually Stanley Wells, says "Nah." John Aubrey's seventeenth-century notes, the earliest reliable account of Shakespeare's appearance, describes "a handsome well shap't man," but that's all the information we have, and even that's not first hand.
posted by josephtate at 6:36 PM on May 8, 2006

jouke, a translation of Ernst Benkard's book (without the gothic font) is now available on Amazon as "Undying Faces: A Collection of Death Masks" and one can look inside the book a little online.
posted by nickyskye at 7:18 PM on May 8, 2006

jouke, a translation of Ernst Benkard's book (without the gothic font) is now available on Amazon as "Undying Faces: A Collection of Death Masks" and one can look inside the book a little online.
posted by nickyskye at 7:19 PM on May 8, 2006

oh damn, cannot believe I double posted. Drat. Sorry. My computer's been giving me trouble lately.
posted by nickyskye at 7:20 PM on May 8, 2006

Am I the only one who read that as "Lauren Hutton's Collection..."?
posted by zardoz at 1:55 AM on May 9, 2006

zardoz, I read that too, lol.

It's sad that Laurence Hutton's collection just sat there collecting dust for years in boxes. Good thing it was excavated out of oblivion and put online.
posted by nickyskye at 8:43 AM on May 9, 2006

Thanks nickyskye.

Unfortunately there's no opportunity to see the photos.
posted by jouke at 3:23 PM on May 9, 2006

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