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In Honor of Presidents’ Day: A Gift of Lincoln to Inspire Unity

By Wendy Swanson

Washington, D.C.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Illinois First Lady MK Pritzer has announced that she is donating an iconic bust of Abraham Lincoln to his presidential library in Springfield. In this time of intense national divisions, the gift is aimed at inspiring unity.

The bust, the work of acclaimed sculptor Leonard Volk, once belonged to the Lincolns themselves and was displayed in their Springfield home. Volk created the commanding depiction for the 1860 presidential campaign. The work proved to be incredibly popular and helped establish Lincoln’s image among voters eager to know more about the presidential candidate. The image shown is of an 1861 illustration of the Lincoln's home showing the bust on display in their formal parlor.

First Lady Pritzker purchased the bust at auction last week for $400,000. The bust is being shipped directly to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (ALPLM).

This copy of the bust was given to the Lincolns by the sculptor on May 18, 1860, the day after Lincoln won the Republican nomination for president. They kept it until moving to Washington, D.C., in February 1861. Instead of taking it with them, they gave it to neighbor and family friend Noyes Miner, and it remained in his family until purchased by the first lady. Miner’s descendants were also owners of a rare Lincoln Bible that they donated to the museum in 2019.

In announcing the gift, First Lady MK Pritzker remarked:

President Lincoln’s vision for national unity amid poisonous and violent division rings true today more than any other time in my lifetime. This iconic bust of President Lincoln is valuable for more than just the history it represents; it is valuable for the future that it inspires. I hope that the people of Illinois visit his presidential library to take in this breathtaking sculpture, and have the opportunity to reflect on the need for unity in our own time.

In thanking First Lady Pritzer for the donation, Gary Johnson, chairman of the ALPLM’s Board of Trustees, described the piece as "helping tell the story of Abraham Lincoln’s journey from politician to president to national icon. It humanizes Lincoln while still managing to capture the strength and determination the nation would soon need."

Christina Shutt, the Library and Museum’s Executive Director added “We were overjoyed ... that this amazing piece of President Lincoln’s legacy is coming to the ALPLM. It’s both a powerful piece of art and an important piece of history that deserves to be seen by Lincoln fans everywhere." The museum plans to display the bust as soon as possible.

Dr. Ian Hunt, the presidential library’s head of acquisitions, explained the historical importance of the piece, specifically, that

Volk’s sculpture helped blunt attacks Lincoln faced when he ran for president.The image captured by Volk dispelled criticism of the future president as awkward, homely or weak. Volk’s work instead conveyed a sense of strength, integrity and character which certainly helped propel Lincoln into the White House.

This gifting is yet another example of Lincoln's relevancy today - as a symbol of - and the hope for - national unity when such is lacking in our current environment.

The Heritage Auctions catalogue provided the following details about the bust:

Abraham Lincoln: His Personal Example of His Iconic Portrait Bust by Leonard Volk, Presented to Him by the Sculptor Himself. It is impossible to overstate the stir which this commanding depiction created when it appeared during the presidential campaign of 1860, and there is no doubt that, along with Mathew Brady's photographic image taken at the time of Lincoln's speech at Cooper Union, it played a vital role in humanizing the upstart Republican nominee for the voting public. This bust and the life mask created as part of the sculpting process would go on to become among the most recognizable examples of American sculpture, rivaled only perhaps by Daniel Chester French's figure of a seated Lincoln created for the Lincoln Memorial and the majestic heads carved into Mount Rushmore.

The bust is executed in neoclassical style, set on a base of vertical planes which lend a certain monumentality to the work. Later, smaller versions featured only Lincoln's head. Larger versions were also produced, one draped in a classical toga. Ultimately there would be tens of thousands of reproductions in every size and medium. The bust stands 15 inches tall including the base, and 12 1/2 inches tall without the base and retains its original finish and a rich cabinet patina.

Early in 1860, the rising candidate was approached by an entrepreneurially-minded Chicago artist named Leonard Volk. ... The finished product was ready in time to be unveiled at the time of the Republican National Convention in Chicago. … The Chicago Tribune would write of the sculpture "For fidelity of likeness and execution" the depiction was "unsurpassed.... It is worthy of a place in every Republican counting house, office, and library in the land." The Chicago Record added " admirable piece of work, and a perfect 'counterfeit' presentment of Honest Old Abe." Volk undertook an ambitious promotional plan, with national advertising, circulars, and even an army of salesmen armed with order blanks.

In May of 1860, Leonard Volk visited the Lincolns in Springfield and presented them with one of the early "cabinet" examples of his bust. Lincoln gave it a place of prominence in his parlor, on a vitrine next to the fireplace, until the family decamped for Washington in February 1861. At that time he gifted it to his friend and neighbor, Rev. Noyes Miner, who would later speak at Lincoln's Springfield funeral service. The bust was cherished by Miner and passed down through generations of his family along with another important artifact, an elaborate Bible inscribed to Lincoln and presented to him by the ladies of Philadelphia at the Sanitary Fair of 1864. Mary Lincoln had that book re-inscribed and presented it to Rev. Miner, who had become a close friend and confidante, after the President's death. In 1882, Rev. Miner penned a marvelous, lengthy account of his relationship with the Lincolns in which he details how the present bust came into his possession. The original manuscript is now held by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. In 2019, the Bible was presented with great fanfare to that museum, but the family retained possession of the Volk bust until the decision was made to offer it at auction.

(The image accompanying this article was provided by the ALPML.)


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