Found  /  Dispatch

Out From Behind This Mask

A Barthesian bristle and the curious power of Walt Whitman’s posthumous eyelids.

An ancient funerary custom, casting from the face remained a significant memorial practice in Europe and America into the early twentieth century, but the tradition declined rapidly after the 1860s when photography rose to prominence as the primary technology of commemoration. The heyday of the messy business of death mask casting (the face of the fresh corpse had to be liberally smeared with tallow to prevent adhesion of the mold) correlates with the rise of a modern culture of celebrity across the watershed of the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries -- people wanted memorial tokens of “great men” (and women too) in a new era of mass culture. But there was more: the same period saw peak enthusiasm for physiognomy, the science that endeavored to discern human character in the physical manifestation of facial features like the nose and the forehead. In this sense, funeral casting was entangled with impulses both moral and forensic: the angle of Schiller’s brow might have something to teach us about genius, so it needed to be preserved and distributed; at the same time, “scientifically speaking”, it was not clear that all the signs of genius could yet be clearly read in a forehead, so the collection of lots of evidentiary material was propaedeutic to a truly empirical understanding of the human visage.

Enthusiasm for all this faded across the second half of the nineteenth century. The story of Hutton’s own collection provides good evidence for the changing mood: he sourced his first acquisitions from a dustbin in lower Manhattan circa 1865 — they had been discarded by the widow of a gentleman, recently deceased; her gesture (she asked the servants to throw out “the nasty, ghastly things”) accorded with a broader shift in mortuary sensibility in the era. But young master Hutton, something of an eccentric, found himself beguiled by the placid visages of Burns, Washington, Sheridan, and Lord Brougham staring up, ghostlike, from the ashcan, and he loaded them into a wheelbarrow, whence they emerged as the nucleus of his collection — or, perhaps better, the first little seeds of his quiet mania for the impression of death’s soft seal upon unbreathing lips.