ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 60 Leonard Wells Volk
In the beginning was Chicago and Leonard Wells Volk. Volk came here in 1857, fresh from instruction in Rome and Florence, and proceeded to do a bust of his wife’s cousin, Stephen A. Douglas, senator of parts. It was the first piece of sculpture to be done in Chicago. Volk, 20, became immediately the “leader” in the town’s art circles, such as they were.
Net year, Cousin Stephen and a clodhopper from downstate, Abraham Lincoln, engaged in a series of debates on slavery. Volk proceeded to do his part for his wife’s kin by making a full life-sized statue in marble. The town was awed. Here was somebody, right in their midst, who could do what Michelangelo and even Phidias used to do — chisel a man out of stone.
Next year (1850, Chicago had an art exhibition. Volk was the moving spirit but then, as now, there had to be a figurehead, somebody of social importance, and so Lt. Col. James D. Graham was chairman. Volk was only curator.
It was called an exhibition of “Statuary, Painting, etc.,” delicately indicating the “statuary” was the nobler art, taking precedence over a “painting.” Nowadays, our catalogues usually read “Painters and Sculptors” and when the show comes off, the “sculptors are spotted around in corners that otherwise would be devoted to flowerpots.
In the 1859 exhibition, besides Volk’s two marbles of Cousin Stephen, a bust he had done in St. Louis of another politician, Henry Clay, before he went abroad, and some other of his pieces, there was shown a new painting by a German-American Leutze, called “Washington Crossing the Delaware.”
In 1867, the Chicago Academy of Design came into being, largely through Volk’s efforts, and he was elected president. He served for eight years, though often as an absentee president, spending two of the years in Italy and traveling elsewhere, executing commissions.
Senator Douglas was not only Volk’s relative by marriage but was also his patron. Volk, born at Wellstown, N.Y., Nov. 7, 1828, grew up in western Massachusetts where he worked in the marble quarries, learning to cut, carve, and letter the stone.
When he was 20, he went out to St. Louis to engage in the marble business, ornamenting buildings and making monuments. It was here, in 1850, he did the bust of Henry Clay, the first piece of “fine art” sculpture west of the Mississippi. Two years later, he married Emily Clarissa Barlow of Bethany, N.Y., not far from the boyhood haunts of Stephen A. Douglas. Through Clarissa Barlow and Henry Clay, Douglas became interested in Volk’s career, and in 1855 sent him to Italy to perfect his talents.
Though naturally favoring Douglas, Volk became impressed, too, with Lincoln (as did Douglas), and in 1860 he made a portrait bust of the log splitter, which a little later he chiseled in marble. This bust, most unfortunately, was pulverized in the Chicago fire in 1871.
At the same time, however, he made a life mask of Lincoln, together with plaster casts of his hands, and these are preserved in the National Museum, Washington, among its most precious relics. He made also a life mask of Douglas. Thus are preserved exact likenesses of the two great figures in Illinois and national history immediately preceding the Civil War.
Volk came to claim Lincoln as a warm, personal friend. Just after his nomination in Chicago and shortly after the finishing of his bust, Lincoln, introducing Volk to some political associates, remarked, “In two or three days after Mr. Volk commenced my bust, there was the animal himself.”
Douglas died after a brief illness in Chicago in June 1861. Burial in the Congressional cemetery at Washington was proposed, but citizens of Chicago petitioned Mrs. Douglas to let them buy a plot of ground rising from the lake at 35th Street, which he had designated as the site of his future home. Here, he was buried with distinguished honors.
The war over and men’s minds turning to building memorials to the distinguished dead, the Douglas Monument Association was formed in 1866 to raise a fund of $100,000.
Leonard W. Volk was commissioned for the huge job, completed 15 years later. It is this monument, dedicated formally in 1881, that is seen in the little part at 35th Street overlooking the lake.
Senator Douglas’ body was laid in 1868 in a sarcophagus in the foundation, removed from its original grave. A bronze statue of Douglas by Volk surmounts the shaft. The original plaster and a small copy in marble are in the collection of the Chicago Historical Society. At the angles of the base are four bronze figures, one of them emblematic of Illinois and the others representing History, Justice, and Eloquence.
Volk performed a similar memorial service for Lincoln, the solders’ and sailors’ monument at Rochester, N.Y., surmounted by a bronze figure of the Emancipator. At the base are allegorical figures Artillery, Infantry, Cavalry, and Marine — and there are four tablets of bronze representing the bombardment of Fort Sumter, the fight between the Monitor and the Merrimac, the battle of Gettysburg and the surrender of Lee at Appomattox. Worked into the design are also sentences from Lincoln’s Gettysburg speech.
Volk, once settled here in 1857, continued to make his home in Chicago, with a summer house and studio at Osceola, WIs. He lived to participate in the World’s Fair of 1393, extensively represented in the decorating of the horticultural, agricultural, and Illinois buildings, and the art palace. He executed a great number of portrait busts of Chicago and national celebrities. He died at his Wisconsin summer home Aug 19, 1895.
Volk’s son Stephen Arnold Douglas Volk, born in Massachusetts shortly before his family came to Chicago, became a painter and followed in his father’s footsteps to the extent of painting a portrait of Lincoln, now in the Albright Gallery, Buffalo, and painting war portraits of Gen. Pershing, Lloyd George, and King Albert of Belgium, now in the National Gallery, Washington. He studied in Paris under Gerome, and at 19 exhibited at the Paris Salon. The following year, at 20, he was represented at the Philadelphia Centennial. He was a member of the jury for selecting the art show for the Chicago Fair of 1893. Of late years, he has lived in New York, with a summer home in Maine. “The Puritan Maiden,” “Accused of Witchcraft,” “Flower of the Colony,” “Autumn,” “Motherhood,” “Puritan Mother” are titles of some of his pictures, indicating the trend of his inspiration.