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Douglas Volk and Leonard Wells Volk papers, circa 1858-1965, bulk 1870-1935

Biographical Note

Chicago sculptor Leonard Wells Volk (1828-1895) created one of only two life masks of Abraham Lincoln. His son, painter and teacher Douglas Volk (1856-1935), was known for his figure and portrait paintings. Douglas Volk and his wife Marion Larrabee Volk established the Sabatos Handicraft Society, producing homespun woolen rugs and textiles from their summer home in Center Lovell, Maine.
Leonard Wells Volk was raised in New York State and Massachusetts, before moving to St. Louis to learn modeling and drawing. Around 1852 he married Emily Clarissa King Barlow, a cousin of Senator Stephen A. Douglas. Douglas took an interest in Volk's career and helped finance his trip to Rome and Florence between 1855 and 1857, where Volk studied art. On returning from Europe Volk settled in Chicago, opening a studio there and establishing himself as a leader in art circles and a founder of the Chicago Academy of Design. He served as president of the Academy (later the School of the Art Institute of Chicago) for eight years. Volk recorded his first meeting with Lincoln during the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates, and the subsequent 1860 sittings with Lincoln for the life mask, hands, and bust, in his memoirs. The mask served as a model for many sculptors who made later portraits of Lincoln. Volk's other important works include the Rock Island County Soldier's Monument in Rochester, New York (1869), statues of Lincoln and Douglas for the Illinois Statehouse (1876), a bust of Douglas, and the Douglas Tomb monument (1881) in Chicago.
Douglas Volk was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1856. His artistic education began in his teens when he traveled to Europe with his family. In the early 1870s he lived in Rome and Venice, spending time with his friends George de Forest Brush and J. Alden Weir. He moved to Paris in 1873 where he studied at the École des Beaux Arts with Jean-Léon Gérôme, and exhibited his first picture, In Brittany, at the 1875 Paris Salon.
In 1879 Volk returned to the United States and accepted a teaching position at Cooper Union. He was elected to the Society of American Artists in 1880 and married Marion Larrabee in 1881. In 1883 Volk became a founder of the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts and was appointed the first president of the subsequent Minneapolis School of Fine Arts in 1886, a position he held until 1893. During his time in Minneapolis, Volk purchased a summer studio and retreat in Osceola, Wisconsin, and he and Marion had four children: Leonard (1882-1891), Wendell (1884-1953), Marion (1888-1973) and Gerome (1890-1959). In 1893 Volk returned to New York and accepted a position at the Art Students League, where he taught from 1893-1898, and also resumed his post at Cooper Union. He became interested in innovative ways to teach art and art history to children, and in 1895 the National Academy of Design printed his essay "A Plea for Art in the Public Schools," in its annual exhibition catalog. He was elected an associate of the Academy in 1898, becoming a full academician in 1899.
In 1898, looking to provide the family with a summer retreat, Marion Volk purchased property with a friend in Center Lovell, Maine, an area already enjoyed by the couple's friends, George de Forest Brush and Percival Chubb. The property was divided in 1901 and Marion added to her half creating a lot of approximately twenty-five acres. The Volks renovated the house, which they named Hewnoaks, and eventually built four more cottages and a studio for Douglas Volk on the property. During this period Marion Volk was working with handwoven wool on traditional area looms using fruit and vegetable hand-dyes and designs based on motifs from Native American art. In 1902 the Volks held the founding meeting of the Sabatos Handicraft Society at Hewnoaks, and the property became the hub of a Center Lovell community effort to produce rugs, textiles, and other handicrafts using traditional methods. Daughter Marion worked with her mother, and son Wendell, a printmaker and woodcaver, operated the Hewn Beam Press, printing pamphlets and a newsletter entitled the Fire Fly: A Periodical of Fearless Endeavour. Swedish-born wood carver Karl von Rydingsvard offered classes on wood carving at Hewnoaks, assisted by Wendell Volk.
Douglas Volk worked to make the Hewnoaks handicraft movement a success, but focused primarily on his own painting. The Maine woods provided endless inspiration and the setting for many of his paintings and murals, which primarily depicted romanticized historical subjects in Colonial America and reflected his traditional academic training. One of his best known works, The Boy with the Arrow (1903), a portrait of his son Leonard "Leo" Volk who died at the age of eight, is now in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Volk taught at the National Academy of Design from 1910-1917. He served as recording secretary and then on the council for the organization from 1910-1919. His acclaimed intimate portraits of friends and acquaintances, including Felix Adler (1914) and William Macbeth (1917), were painted during this period. In 1919 Volk was one of a group of artists commissioned by the National Art Committee to paint major figures from World War I. He subsequently painted portraits of King Albert of Belgium, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, and General John J. Pershing, and recorded his meetings and sittings with the three men in his journals.
For the last fifteen years of his life Volk, using his father's life mask, painted a series of portraits of Abraham Lincoln, one of which hangs in the Lincoln Bedroom at The White House.
At least fifteen years prior to her death in 1925, Marion Volk's involvement in handicrafts at Hewnoaks declined, while Douglas Volk continued to focus on his own work. Wendell Volk's career in civil engineering took precedence over his interest in weaving and woodcarving and both he and his brother Gerome moved West in 1909. Following Douglas Volk's death in Fryeburg, Maine in 1935, Wendell Volk and his wife Jessie, also an artist, ultimately took possession of Hewnoaks. Wendell died in 1953, but the property was eventually bequeathed by Jessie Volk to the University of Maine and now operates as an artist colony.