Our death mask of Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885), the 18th President of the United States (1869-1877) and Major General of the Union Army during the American Civil War, was recently requested for loan. Unfortunately, a quick trip to the vault revealed that the plaster had been broken in several places, sometime in the past. It was a sad reminder of just how delicate these very heavy commemorative objects can be.
Grant’s head is framed with oak leaves on one side and laurel on the other. Oak leaves can stand for power, authority, longevity or victory. Laurel represents special achievements, distinction, success, triumph of worldly accomplishment, and heroism.
Collector and donor Laurence Hutton (1843-1904) wrote, “Two moulds from the face of General Grant, another warrior, maker of history, and leader of men, were made almost immediately after his death at Mount McGregor: one without the knowledge or consent of his family, nobody knows by whose connivance; the other, at the request of his family, by Mr. Karl Gerhardt. Both of these, or copies of them, came eventually into my collection.”
“The first is very distressing, and at the request of the present General Grant I have never exhibited it or permitted it to be reproduced in any way. The second was bequeathed to me by Mr. Arthur Dodge, although I have never learned how or from whom he obtained it. It has been put into an allegorical national frame but nothing has been added to its value or its interest thereby.” —Talks in a Library with Laurence Hutton (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1907).
Gerhardt was introduced to Grant by Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain 1835-1910) in the last days of his life and at Clemens’ recommendation, agreed to the death mask. It is unknown how many additional copies Gerhardt had made from this original mould. Later, Clemens paid Gerhardt to return his bust, made in terra cotta, to Mrs. Grant and it is now in the collection of the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C.