The Death Mask of James Monroe

The Death Mask of James Monroe

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What did Founding Fathers Look Like?

James Monroe

During the process of reconstructing the life masks of the United States Founding Fathers and other historical figures I have had many requests to do a reconstruction of the face of our fifth President James Monroe.

Sadly, no life mask of James Monroe exists. We only have his death mask showing us his true likeness. John Henri Isaac Browere who cast life masks of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and many other famous Americans had also hoped to cast Monroe from life however Monroe declined his request.

Just as there is a difference in life and death, so to is it with life and death masks. While I have no interest in reconstructing deaths mask as I have done with life masks, Monroe's status as a founding father and president has me considering tackling this project in the future nonetheless.

James Monroe spent the last few months of his life with his daughter in New York. He passed July 4, 1831 and was buried three days later. In this window of time Browere was able to cast Monroe's death mask; however, Browere feeling that the soul was gone never developed the mask into a portrait bust as he had done with his life masks. He left the eyes closed and hair unmodeled.

My feelings upon this death mask are summed up in Charles Henry Hart's "Browere's Life Masks of Great Americans" in which he states, "The masks that Browere made from the subject in full life, must not be confused in any sense with the more common mask made after death. This confusion could not occur with any one who has had an opportunity to observe Browere’s work;...... but persons not familiar with these portrait busts, and having only some knowledge of masks made after death, or of such life masks as Clark Mills made,—which are thoroughly death-like in their character,—might easily fall into such an error, and, looking upon the latter as repulsive and worthless as portraiture, give no heed to the different character and true value of Browere’s living likenesses.

James Monroe Death Mask by J. I. Browere

Death mask of James Monroe Source: Cheryl A. Daniel, with special thanks to Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown N.Y.

"I do not quote these words, of my accomplished friend Mr. Hutton, simply for the purpose of combating them, but to show how differently two, perfectly sincere, honest delvers after historic truth, can see the same thing. Having made portraiture my study for many years, and thus having in my mind’s eye, indelibly fixed, the faces of legions of public men, I have yet to see a death mask that I could recognize at sight; many I could recall when told whose masks they were, but more yet have, to my vision, no resemblance whatever to the living man. Mr. Story, the eminent American sculptor but recently deceased, recognized how untrustworthy even life masks are as portraits. In speaking of what is claimed to be Houdon’s original mask of Washington, which Mr. Story owned, he wrote: “Indeed, a mask from the living face, though it repeats exactly the true forms of the original, lacks the spirit and expression of the real person.” So true is this, that when Mr. St. Gaudens first saw Clark Mills’s life mask of President Lincoln, he insisted that it was a death mask; for, without 'the spirit and expression,' where can the likeness be? As Sir Joshua Reynolds says in one of his Discourses: 'In portraits, the grace and, we may add, the likeness consists more in taking the general air than in observing the exact similitude of every feature.' In photography we have 'the exact similitude of every feature,' yet how often are photographs bad likenesses, because they lack 'the spirit and expression'!

James Monroes Unreconatructed death mask by J. I. Browere

Death mask of James Monroe Source: Cheryl A. Daniel, with special thanks to Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown N.Y.

"While it is possible to preserve 'the spirit and expression' as well as to give 'the exact similitude of every feature' in a life mask, as exemplified in the marvellous work of Browere, it is impossible in a death mask, for these evanescent qualities are then gone. I am not quite certain that even 'the exact similitude of every feature' is preserved in a death mask; certainly the natural relation of one feature to another is not. The death mask may, to a degree, be a correct reproduction of the bony structure, but only to a limited degree as it was in nature, for the obvious reason that the ligaments, holding the sections of bone together in their proper places, become relaxed with dissolution, and the bones lose their exact positions, which condition even the slight weight of the plaster increases.

"Masks, too, will sometimes approach caricature, if they will not flatter, for they will reproduce peculiarities of formation which may not be observable superficially. This view is emphasized by Lavater in his 'Physiognomy,' as quoted by Mr. Hutton. Lavater writes: 'The dead and the impressions of the dead, taken in plaster, are not less worthy of observation [than the living faces]. The settled features are much more prominent than in the living and in the sleeping. What life makes fugitive, death arrests. What was undefinable, is defined. All is reduced to its proper level; each trait is in its exact proportion, unless excruciating disease or accident have preceded death.' This is undoubtedly true from the point of view of the physiognomist, and it is his much desired vantage-ground, for his only object is to read the features laid bare.

"From Browere’s hand we have but one death mask, and although it is open to much of the objection urged against death masks generally, it is superior to any other death mask I have ever seen. It is difficult to believe it was made after life was gone, so vibrant with life it seems. It possesses more living, breathing qualities than the life masks made by other men. If any proof were needed of the inestimable value of Browere’s lost process for making masks, it can be found in the quality of this death mask of James Monroe.

James Monroe's death mask cast by John H. I. Browere

Death mask of James Monroe Source: Cheryl A. Daniel, with special thanks to Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown N.Y.

"Monroe’s name is perhaps more familiarly known to the public than that of any other President, save Washington and Lincoln, owing to its association with the doctrine, which he promulgated, of non-interference on the western hemisphere by European nations, known as the 'Monroe Doctrine.' He was the fourth of the seven Virginian Presidents, and left William and Mary College, when only eighteen, as a lieutenant in Hugh Mercer’s regiment, to join Washington’s army. He served throughout the Revolutionary War, having been wounded at Trenton, and was present at Monmouth, Brandywine, and Germantown. In 1782 he took his seat in the Assembly of Virginia, and later was a delegate to Congress. Monroe took an active part in the controversy relative to the settlement of the Northwest Territory, which was quieted only by the Ordinance of 1787; and although he had a hand in originating the convention to frame a constitution for the General Government, he was not a member of it, and opposed the ratification of its work.

"He was elected to the Senate of the United States in 1790, and held the office until he was sent as minister to France, four years later. He was a bitter anti-Federalist and opponent of the administration of Washington, so that his appointment to France came as a great surprise; and his action in recognizing the Republic, was an even greater surprise to his home government. For this he was reprimanded, and on his return published a defence of his conduct. He was Governor of Virginia, from 1797 to 1802, and returned to France as special envoy to negotiate with Napoleon the purchase of Louisiana. He was again Governor of Virginia, but resigned to accept the portfolio of state in Madison’s cabinet, which was the stepping-stone to the succession in the Presidency. This high office he held for two terms, and for the last term there was only one electoral vote cast against him. It was in the second year of his second term, 1823, that he enunciated the famous Monroe Doctrine of “Hands off!” contained in two brief paragraphs in his annual message, which doctrine is logically nullified by the present foreign policy of the country.

Browere's 1831 Death Mask of James Monroe

Death mask of James Monroe Source: Cheryl A. Daniel, with special thanks to Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown N.Y.

"Monroe’s administration has been designated “the Era of Good Feeling,” and he should always be remembered as an upright and honest politician. As is too often the case with men who give their best years to the public service, his latter days were burdened by intense poverty, and he died in New York, July 4, 1831, almost in want.

"In person Monroe was tall, well formed, and with a fair complexion and blue eyes. The well-known portraits of him, by Stuart and by Vanderlyn, tail to bestow any signs of recognition upon Browere’s death mask; but it is true these two portraits were painted a score and more years before Monroe’s death. While, as has been said, it is far more life-like than many life casts, its reproduction only serves to emphasize my views as to the little value of death masks as portraits."1

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Sources & References:
1 Charles Henry Hart. “The Project Gutenberg EBook of Browere’s Life Masks of Great Americans” https://www.gutenberg.org/files/51890/51890-h/51890-h.htm

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