July 16, 2009

Masks of Death

Himself: Felt the phone interview went very well. Yes, if the person they hire is a fit with the company, they will pick them up full time.

Herself: I was supposed to quilt, but I found the day filling up with stuff, stuff, and more stuff exponentially. I will quilt today.

Reading: Crais still.

Balance: Downstairs quietly reading while he did his interview upstairs.

Joanna Ebenstein in her blog Morbid Anatomy wrote an entry on “The Art and History of the Death Mask,” and right away I was a goner. She recommended we read “Obit’s” article “Death Doesn’t Lie” by David Jays. By the time I was done with that, I was elbows and knees into Google looking for more about death masks.

Why would this be of interest? I’m an artist and a reader. Here are all the people I’ve read about my whole life as they really were. Sometimes life masks catch them when they are young . Sometimes death arrives late and twists the familiar into the unknown.

Look at the face of Louis Agassiz in the Laurence Hutton Collection at Princeton University. His is an earnest face. We know today he was a major scientific figure of the time, and was teaching at Harvard at the time of his death at only 66. He smiles gently in the Princeton death mask, but in photographs he appears older, burdened, weighted by grey and beliefs.

I’m also a feminist.

Looking down the galleries, I noted there were few woman. On the L/M page there is Luisa, Queen consort of Frederich William III, King of Prussia. There too, just a bit further down the page is Mary Queen of Scots looking much like her sister. Maria Malibran at 28, a famous opera singer of the 19th century, smiles calmly from a casting that belies the long death she must have suffered after a fall off her horse. Few of the other pages have women at all.

Here we see an interesting reality. List without his teeth. Thomas Moore’s fine boned face with a frown. Thomas Paine’s broken nose jutting out at us. How did that happen, I wonder. In death, Max Reinhardt’s lumpy visage tells us nothing of his creative achievements as a director. Robspierre’s gentle face is next, and it says not one world about the reign of terror and madness that led his adversaries to call him a bloody tyrant.

These bland, weighted by wax or clay, modelings were popular from the earliest Egyptian period through the beginnings of the 20th century. A few death masks were made after the turn of the century, notably Woodrow Wilson’s face and hand and James Dean’s unbelievable and colored face, but gradually they fell out of favor as the ability to photograph the dead became available to almost everyone.

I found that photos only capture death, but the death masks capture reality in three dimensions.


  1. Fascinating. While I was working as a photographer I really wanted to take funeral pictures. Like wedding pictures--as the cars drive up stop the people getting out, make a photo and put them all in a book, covered in black, of course. Sometimes who attends a funeral says a lot about the deceased.

  2. I am also fascinated by death masks, I have seen a few in museums. As you wrote, a mask has nothing to do with a photograph, it is much more realistic.
    Ah, Maria Malibran, she became a mystic figure, she had such a wonderful voice.

  3. I like Ruthe's ideas. And I am now committed to googling death masks myself now. I had not thought much of the subject before looking at some of those in the link.


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Peter in front of a wall sculpture. We were invited up to Peter Knego’s home to see the latest installation.   Abstract flat ...