Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from American National Biography. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 12 November 2019

Volk, Leonard Wellsfree

(07 November 1828–19 August 1895)
  • Mary Mullen Cunningham

Leonard Wells Volk.

Illustration in America's Greatest Men and Women, 1894.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-95390).

Volk, Leonard Wells (07 November 1828–19 August 1895), sculptor, was born in Wellstown (now Wells), New York, the son of Garret Volk, a marble cutter who worked on New York’s city hall, and Elizabeth Gesner. Volk spent most of his youth on a farm in Massachusetts. At the age of sixteen he became an apprentice at his father’s marble yard in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Following his advancement to journeyman carver, he worked in western Massachusetts and then formed a partnership with a brother in upstate New York, working in various cities including Buffalo, Rochester, Batavia, and Bethany.

In Bethany, Volk met Emily Clarissa Barlow, a doctor’s daughter, whom he later married. In the fall of 1848, possibly following Emily Barlow westward, he accepted a job in St. Louis, Missouri. There he rented a studio and in his free time began to draw and model in clay. Among his earliest sculptures was a marble copy of Joel T. Hart’s bust of Henry Clay, as well as portraits of Father Theobald Matthew (1850) and of Emily Barlow’s father, Jonathan King Barlow. His first commission came from Archbishop Peter Richard Kenrick of St. Louis for two portrait medallions to adorn the interior of the Calvary Cemetery mausoleum of Major Thomas Biddle, paymaster of the U.S. Army and a director of the Bank of the United States, and his wife, Ann Mullanphy Biddle.

In 1852 Volk married Emily Barlow, and the couple settled in Galena, Illinois. They had a son and a daughter. His wife’s cousin, Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas, took a strong interest in the young sculptor and helped finance him on a study trip abroad. Volk set sail from New York in September 1855. He saw the Elgin marbles in London and visited the Paris Exposition, but he spent most of his year-and-a-half sojourn in Italy. In Rome he studied antique casts at the French Academy and modeled his first full-length statue, a portrait of the young George Washington cutting down the cherry tree. He was befriended by other American sculptors living in Rome, including Randolph Rogers, whose likeness he modeled. He spent several months in Florence before returning to the United States in June 1857.

Upon Volk’s arrival home Douglas again offered him financial assistance and helped him set up a studio in Chicago. But 1857 was a depression year, and Volk had to cut cameos in order to make ends meet. The heated race between Douglas and Abraham Lincoln for the U.S. Senate in 1858 helped spark Volk’s career, and he was commissioned to execute a life-size statue of Douglas (now in the old state capitol in Springfield, Ill.). That year the statue of Douglas and four other sculptures by Volk, including his plasters of Randolph Rogers and the young George Washington as well as a clay statuette and a life-size marble of the five-year-old son of Chicago real estate developer Samuel H. Kerfoot, were exhibited in the first major art show of the Northwest, called the Chicago Exhibition of the Fine Arts and curated by Volk himself.

Volk met Lincoln during the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and in April 1860 Lincoln sat for the sculptor. To reduce the number of sittings the sculptor required to make a bust, he executed his well-known life mask of Lincoln. This mask, as well as the life casts of Lincoln’s hands that Volk made in the summer of 1860 at Lincoln’s Springfield home, was used by many subsequent sculptors who modeled Lincoln’s likeness. Later Volk published a description of how he made the mask in Century Magazine (23 [1881]: 223–28). On 12 June 1860 Volk patented his bust of Lincoln (a plaster version is in the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.). After Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, Volk received numerous orders for this bust, which he executed in full and half-life sizes with various styles of truncation. It was probably his first marble version of the Lincoln bust that was purchased by Chicago’s Crosby Art Association in 1866 and shown the following year at the Paris Exposition. This marble was later housed at the Chicago Historical Society, where it was destroyed in the great Chicago fire of 1871. Volk achieved a lasting fame and a modicum of financial success with his life casts, busts, and cameos of Lincoln. He employed assistants to help him fill the numerous orders he received for these likenesses.

An active participant in Chicago’s artistic life, Volk helped organize the Chicago Art Union in 1861. He was in charge of the art galleries for Chicago’s Civil War sanitary fairs in 1863 and 1865. After the war he helped found the Chicago Academy of Design and served as its president for eight years.

In 1866, five years after the death of Douglas, Volk designed a monument to mark his benefactor’s Chicago grave. The huge monument is dominated by a soaring marble shaft on which stands a nine-foot-tall statue of Douglas holding a scroll. Volk published the short book History of the Douglas Monument at Chicago in 1880.

The boom in monument making following the Civil War brought Volk a good deal of work. Among his important contributions in this area are the first Civil War soldiers’ monument in the United States at Girard, Pennsylvania; a soldiers’ monument for Rock Island, Illinois; and a statue of Lincoln for the soldiers’ monument in Rochester, New York. He also completed a statue of Lincoln for the new state capitol building in Springfield, Illinois. Volk returned to Italy in 1868–1869 and in 1871–1872 to study and to execute some of his commissions.

Portraiture was Volk’s mainstay. His naturalistic portrait style displays a typical mid- to late nineteenth-century concern with accuracy and straightforward representation. There is little attempt in his work to evoke the underlying psychological or emotional character of his sitters. Rather, his goal was to carefully record and preserve the likenesses of the statesmen, businessmen, clergymen, and other prominent citizens who sat for him. Among the notable figures he immortalized are Elihu B. Washburne (1888), Judge David Davis (c. 1888), James McVicker (1889), and Jonathan Young Scammon (1891). In 1893 he executed a bronze statue of General James Shields as Illinois’s contribution to Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. Volk died in Osceola, Wisconsin. His son Stephen, named after Stephen Douglas, became a prominent painter.


The Chicago Historical Society has some of Volk’s correspondence and papers relating to his artistic activities in Chicago. A brief biographical account penned by Volk and transcribed from an original letter dated 5 July 1885 is in Volk’s artist file at the New York Public Library. Worthwhile accounts of Volk’s life and work are also found in Biographical Sketches of the Leading Men of Chicago (1868), pp. 335–42; Donald Charles Durman, He Belongs to the Ages: The Statues of Abraham Lincoln (1951), pp. 3–5; F. Lauriston Bullard, Lincoln in Marble and Bronze (1952), pp. 89–91; and Alfred T. Andreas, History of Chicago (3 vols. 1884–1886; repr. 1975), which contains an entry on Volk in vol. 2, p. 559. An obituary is in the Chicago Tribune, 20 Aug. 1895.