Impressions From the Face of a Corpse

The death mask’s uncanny capacity for portraiture, an Object Lesson

When the curators of Stanford University’s art museum asked Darren Waterston to make art from their collection, he fixed on the bone-white death mask of Leland Stanford Jr. Along with their millions, the Stanfords had left their faces to the university. Taken with the death mask, Waterston made it the subject of his 2009 exhibition Splendid Grief. His paintings, sculptures, and wallpaper designs responded as much to the mask’s aesthetic properties as its crystallization of grief. Death masks create new objects out of our bodies in decay. They exist in history—in Victorian mourning culture or the power structures of Renaissance Italy, for example—but also as physical forms, as contradictions of flesh and plaster.

The death mask is something between a creepy portrait and a contact relic. I shiver each time I brush one, for no matter my scholarly remove I can’t help but feel the presence of the dead under my fingertips. For inert matter, especially matter that speaks so stridently of death, the death mask trades on a weird liveliness. It’s an uncanny object, one that spurs us to reconsider the matter of portraiture and commemoration. To ask why or how a death mask works is to probe a maelstrom that makes mock of sure footing. But what if the thing that makes a death mask tick is not the resemblance to someone long-dead, but rather the visual noise, static, and imperfections that halt that resemblance in its tracks?

There is a lengthy history of taking impressions from the face of a corpse. One might have been made for Alexander the Great. Certain keen-eyed academics have argued that the indigenous peoples of Arkansas cast pots from the heads of their dead relatives. But they really came to the fore in the nineteenth century, when doctors and traveling specialists did brisk business taking plaster casts from celebrities and criminals. They adorned family mantels. Phrenologists sought them out as teaching tools, and taught students to read worlds into the bumps and grooves of cheekbones and foreheads. Artists incorporated death masks into commemorative busts, such as that made of Napoleon I by François Carlo Antommarchi.

The death mask became popular thanks to the assumption that it was a portrait par excellence. Laurence Hutton, a nineteenth-century collector known for sifting the trash of medical schools in search of specimens, claimed that “it must, of necessity, be absolutely true to nature.” He hearkened in part to the mechanical exactitude of the process, which seemed to transcribe the subject’s features more accurately than any human sculptor. He also subscribed to the popular notion that in death our bodies become honest corpses. To wit: Sir Walter Scott remarked on Napoleon’s propensity to conceal his thoughts while alive. Wearing a polite smile whenever he thought himself observed, the tyrant presented “the fixed and rigid eyes of a marble bust” to enemies and acquaintances alike. In contrast, Hutton crowed that Napoleon’s death mask caught him off guard.

And yet the masks themselves seem to conspire against their portrait-like qualities. In the first place, a dead body always looks dead. There’s an inertness that accretes to a body, a slowing of the blood and then a swelling as that same blood pools. Conversely, the dead body is always in motion as it rots, sags, and decays. Sally Mann’s photographs of a Tennessee body farm capture decaying bodies in all their contortions, as do the images brought home from the Civil War by photographers such as Alexander Gardner and Matthew Brady. Whatever else the death mask captures, it captures a dead body first and foremost.

The traces of death register in masks in a variety of ways, often contingent on the corpse’s freshness. Some masks are cast mere hours after death, others after rigor mortis has set in, and still others from centuries-old, disinterred bodies. Workers discovered the fourteenth-century skull of Robert the Bruce in the Abbey Church of Dunfermline in 1818, for example, and a death mask taken from it ended up in Hutton’s collection. Death masks could also preserve disfigurations left by the cause of death, or other unflattering traces of mortality. Jean-Paul Marat’s death mask attests to the painful skin disease that caused him so much pain in life.

These indelible markers of death, at odds with the smoothing and softening strategies of contemporary embalmers, polarized nineteenth-century viewers. We’ve already seen how Hutton enthused that the death mask captured a face unguarded by the niceties of conscience and social grace. Others, often relatives of the deceased, railed against death masks as grotesque perversions of portraiture. Even the most artfully cast mask foregrounds the subject’s death in discomfiting ways. Austin Allen recognized this when he wrote of the “fanciful death mask” that “only accentuates the blank stare behind it.”

Death masks also record the work of human hands. They figure the body as something subject to post-mortem manipulation, as a kind of storehouse waiting to be raided by curious scientists, churchmen, or souvenir-seekers. Autopsies, for instance, left their marks. Beethoven’s death mask, taken two days after he died, shows the saw marks where the composer’s ear bones were removed. His left ear later wound up in a curiosity cabinet.

Beethoven's face, forever captured in plaster

Finally, the very mechanisms that rendered death masks so realistic also left their traces. The way death masks were made in the nineteenth century shows how the process itself could mar a subject’s features. First, the mask maker covered the face in oil (usually olive) so as to easily remove the plaster cast later. This left the subject with slicked-down hair, a fact exaggerated in corpses with beards and moustaches. Eyes rarely transferred well, and sculptors tried a number of ways to make them more lifelike. Often, a bipartite mold was taken which subsequently left a seam on the face. Finally, if demand for a mask proved particularly great but the corpse in question was no longer extant, sculptors sometimes took masks from earlier casts. Each copy grew progressively blurrier, softening and distorting the features. You can see the traces of death and the material facts of plaster in each face.

These imperfections also underscore the death mask’s uncanny capacity for portraiture. They make clear the mask’s origins in a real face in a way that wax effigies of the dead don’t. Popular in early-modern Europe and still haunting Madame Tussauds, wax figures are usually modeled rather than cast. They tilt at a different kind of liveliness than death masks, all flesh tones, with a skin-like surface that warms to the touch. Even when Madame Tussaud herself made wax reproductions of dead French victims of the guillotine, her heads lacked the death mask’s particular, haunting preservation of death.

Art historian Georges Didi-Huberman goes further. Responding to what Sartre called “the horror of the viscous,” Didi-Huberman argues that the wax object signifies the viscosity of time. Wax figures become, in a way, too real. Their life-like rendering of veins and glowing skin collapse the distance that separates then from now in a way that Sartre might have found nightmarish. Of course, wax figures can turn literally viscous at the strike of a match. Unlike cold plaster, with its creases and wrinkles, the carefully molded figurine can be formed and re-formed at will. And so the material constraints of the death mask, constraints born of its tangible relationship to a rotting corpse, incarnate a very different relationship with death. Although I’m impressed by wax figures they don’t unsettle me the way that Beethoven’s jutting lip or sawn-out ears do.

And herein lies the value of these imperfections. We can’t compose or conceive death masks without them. They bring to mind Aristotle’s assertion that “the affections of soul are enmattered accounts.” If our bodies and souls are all matter, decaying and fraying around the edges in the course and wear of time, why should our commemorative objects be any different?

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