Biographical Sketches of the Leading Men in Chicago, Photographically Illustrated by John Carbutt, 1868, Pages 335-342
In a young city, as in a new country, the fine arts receive attention or encouragement only after other arts have been successful in making the community rich or prosperous. This is but a practical illustration of the fact that men, when sitting down to dinner, do not indulge in the luxurious viands of the dessert until after they have appeased the cravings of the appetite with the substantiate of the feast. “Business before pleasure,” is the stern rule in all commercial communities, and especially in a young town or city that looks to trade for its vitality and to the utilitarian arts for its growth, its prosperity, and its material advancement. Hence it is that artists have to struggle with poverty, and in the face of threatening starvation, in young cities, where all other classes of men are prosperous. It requires wealth to afford, and leisure and study to appreciate, the works of the ingenious and skillful painter or sculptor, and therefore artists seldom succeed in new communities until those communities have become permanently prosperous—for not until then do people give their thoughts to the beautiful and the ornamental, as well as to the material and useful.
Chicago has as yet developed but few great artists. Mr. Healy, the painter, and Mr. Volk, the sculptor, take the lead, and our city is justly proud of them.
Leonard Wells Volk first established himself here as a sculptor in 1855—twelve years ago—and his career has been an almost constant struggle against discouragements. The city was young. Business, commerce, money-making—the excitements of trade and speculation monopolized the attention of the people, and Art has had to fight its way in the meantime. Gradually, however, has the community come to appreciate the genius and to encourage the skill of the true artist, and, after years of patient labor and heroic effort, Mr. Volk is at last beginning to realize the dreams of his ambition and reap the rewards of his patience and perseverance. His works now rank among the best that the sculptor’s chisel has ever wrought in this country, and his superior genius and skill are recognized by the judges and patrons of art all over the world.
Like nearly all men who have become great in their vocations or professions, Mr. Volk started out in life a poor boy. His parents, once in comfortable worldly circumstances, became reduced in that respect by a sudden reverse of fortune, when he was quite young, and, having a large family of children to care for, they never entirely recovered from the lowly condition to which their misfortune had brought them. Young Leonard, when only seven years of age, left home to assume the responsibilities of life on his own account, and has been struggling, with varied fortune, ever since.
He was born in Wellstown, Montgomery (now Hamilton) County, New York, November 7, 1828. He is a descendant from the earliest settlers of New York, his mother, whose name was Gesner, being of the historical family of Anneke Jantz Bogardus. His father. Garret Volk, was a marble-cutter, a trade in which he perfected himself whilst employed in working on the City Hall of New York. city. Here he continued to reside for several years, both before and after his marriage, laboring at his trade. He afterwards tried his hand at farm-life, in New Jersey and Northern New York, without much success, however, and finally removed to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where he resumed his old trade. Leonard was one of a family of four sisters and eight brothers. Most of his early youth Avas spent on a farm, among the rocks and hills of Berkshire, in the old Bay State. He worked like a young slave, and suffered many hardships, doing the usual drudgery of farm-life, and attending school a part of the year. He never received more than two or three years’ schooling, partly owing to the frequent migrations of the family, and partly on account of his being compelled to earn his own living at farm-work while a boy. His last attendance at school was at Lanesboro, Massachusetts, where he “graduated” from the district school-house in 1844.
When sixteen years of age, after having spent the better part of eight years on a farm, he entered the marble manufactory of his father and elder brother, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to learn the trade of marble-cutting. After becoming sufficiently skilled as an apprentice, he went to Springfield, in that State, working there, and subsequently at Pittsfield, as a journeyman. At the request of another elder brother, also an artificer in marble, as were all of the brothers but two, he afterwards went to Bethany, New York, where he first became acquainted with the beautiful young lady—Miss Emily C. Barlow—who, seven years later, became his wife. He worked at that place as a journeyman for some months, and subsequently in Batavia, Rochester, Albion and Buffalo, being for a while engaged in partnership with his brother at Batavia. In the meantime, the parents of Miss Barlow removed to St. Louis, Missouri, taking their daughter with them. About that time—in 1848—he received an offer of fifty dollars a month from a marble establishment in that city, which he was not slow to accept. Having an object of love to work for, and being stimulated by a noble ambition to prove himself worthy of that object, he labored with great industry, and succeeded, by over-work, in saving nearly five hundred dollars extra earnings during the first year of his service there. He then rented a little “studio” of his own, and, aspiring to something higher than ornamental carving and lettering of marble, in which he greatly excelled, commenced modeling in clay and making drawings. One of his first efforts was a bust of Dr. J. K. Barlow, from a daguerreotype, hoping that Miss Barlow, the object of his affections, would come and see it, and admire and applaud his skill. Could the genius and ambition of youth have a more inspiriting incentive to effort? He persevered in his study and experiments in this line of art for about a year, with encouraging progress, and in the meantime made a life-size copy of Hart’s bust of Henry Clay, the first sculptured bust in marble ever executed west of the Mississippi River, and which he afterwards sold in Louisville, Kentucky. He was then commissioned by Archbishop Kenrick to make two alto-relievo medallions, from an ivory miniature, of Major Biddle and his wife, for their mausoleum. But not meeting with sufficient encouragement in his new undertaking to make it profitable, or even to pay expenses, he was obliged to relinquish it, and to return to his trade as a marble-carver and letterer, which he did with much zeal, hoping to earn and save money enough in a short time to enable him to go to Italy, there to pursue his studies and perfect himself as a sculptor, he and his friends having by this time become well convinced that he had a peculiar genius in that direction. He was one of the first, if not the first, to undertake the practice of that difficult art west of Cincinnati, and could not bear the thought of failure.
At about this period—in 1852—he was married to Miss Barlow, at Dubuque, Iowa. Having now left St. Louis, to seek a better and more remunerative field for his labors, he worked for some time at Galena, and afterwards at Rock Island. At the former place he one day received a visit from Hon. Stephen A. Douglas, who was at that time in the acme of his personal and political popularity. Mrs. Volk’s mother and Judge Douglas’ father were brother and sister, and it was, therefore, quite natural for the Judge, with his generous nature, to feel an interest in the young couple, who were struggling to succeed in life. He strongly urged Mr. Volk to go to Chicago, which, being a growing place and destined to be a great city, was, undoubtedly, the place for a young man like him. Mr. Volk, however, returned to St. Louis, to give that city another trial. Proving unsuccessful, he again went to Rock Island, where, two years and a half after the former interview, he again met Judge Douglas, who then proposed to furnish him funds with which to go to Italy, to pursue his studies there in the best schools of art. The generous and voluntary offer was gladly accepted, and, coming to Chicago in 1855, he at that time adopted it as his home. Leaving his wife and an only child in charge of his brother, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and receiving his passport from Judge Douglas, then in the Senate at Washington, he set sail for Europe in September, 1855, on the ship “Columbia,” from New York. After a long and tedious voyage, he reached Liverpool; thence went to London, remaining there a few days, but long enough to see the Elgin marbles, bv Phidias, in the British Museum, and the most prominent sculptures of that city; thence to Paris, where the first great French World’s Exposition was in progress, remaining there one week; thence going to Rome, via the railroad to Marseilles, by steamer across the Gulf of Genoa to Civita Vecchia, and by diligence to the “Eternal City.” He spent most of his time, during his stay of a year and a half in Italy, in studying the noble and sublime works of art in the great galleries, churches and studios, and drawing from the antique casts in the French Academy. The artists in Rome—such men as Crawford, Randolph, Rogers, Bartholomew, Ives and Mozier—received him cordially, treated him kindly, and gave him the free use of their studios. While occupying Mr. Ives’ studio, during that artist’s absence in this country, Mr. Volk modeled his first statue—that of the “Boy Washington cutting the cherry tree,” which was highly commended by his brother artists in Rome. While in that city, he received a letter from home, announcing the death of his little boy—an event which cast a cloud over the bright scenes in the midst of which the artist was then reveling. He left Rome in January, 1857, for Florence, sojourning in that old city of art for a few months, and then, sailing from Leghorn and stopping at Gibraltar, weather-bound, for a couple of weeks, reached New York after a perilous passage of seventy-four days. He arrived in Chicago in June of that year, with only five dollars in his pocket—the sum and substance of all his earthly possessions—and an untried (in Chicago) profession to make his living from. Judge Douglas, who, not only because of the relationship existing between them, but also because he was convinced that the young artist had much of talent and genius in him, again came to his assistance, and enabled him to open a small studio, in which he went diligently to work, modeling busts, one of the first of which was that of his friend and patron—the Judge. But 1857, as all well remember, was a year of “hard times,” and it was impossible to interest people in sculpture under such circumstances; consequently our artist, ambitious of success, found nothing but discouragements for a year to come; but he cut cameo-likenesses of his friends, at thirty dollars each, to pay expenses, and in the meantime made a portrait, life-size, statue of a boy in marble, for two hundred and fifty dollars. The next year, the memorable campaign for the United States Senatorship, between Messrs. Douglas and Lincoln, opened, and Mr. Volk received a commission for a life-size statue of Judge Douglas, which paid him about as that of the boy above mentioned. This statue, however, was the nucleus and starting point of the first Fine Art Exposition of the Northwest, which he organized in 1859. It was held in Burch’s building, on the corner of Lake street and Wabash avenue. He and a warm personal friend of his, the Rev. William Barry, Secretary of the Chicago Historical Society, were the prime movers in that creditable exposition, Mr. Volk being appointed Superintendent of it by the Board of Directors chosen by citizens. It was a success, and had a wonderful influence towards developing a taste for the fine arts in this city. He spent the winter of 1860 in Washington, “publishing” a statuette of Douglas, (who, as he then believed, would be a candidate for the Presidency,) made from sittings in Chicago, spending much time and some money thereon, but even this did not prove profitable; and in that same year, before the Presidential candidates had been nominated, Mr. Lincoln, who was soon afterwards nominated and elected to the Presidency, while visiting Chicago on legal business, redeemed a promise he had made to Mr. Volk, two years previously, to sit for his bust. The sittings were had in the sculptor’s studio in Portland Block, and Mr. Volk produced an admirable bust, which he afterwards cut in marble, disposing of it, in the summer of 1866, to the “Crosby Art Association,” with the understanding that it should be sent for exhibition to the Great Exposition of 1867, in Paris, It has since proved to be one of the chief objects of interest sent there from this country, being pronounced a perfect likeness, and exquisitely executed. During the exciting Presidential campaign of 1860, Mr. Volk circulated his busts of Lincoln and Douglas all over the country, with indifferent success as regards pecuniary results. Two months after Mr. Lincoln’s election, Mr. Volk, while at Springfield, asked him for the appointment of Consul at Leghorn, but in the midst of the great national excitement which followed his inauguration at Washington, he probably forgot his promise; at all events another man was appointed.
In 1861, Mr. Volk spent most of the winter in the first “Chicago Art Union,” which was gotten up for the benefit of the local artists. The breaking out of the war seriously interfered with this enterprise, and the proceeds realized by the artists did not amount to much.
When the first call was made for seventy-five thousand volunteers, after the rebel assault on Fort Sumpter, Mr. Volk enlisted in a company of Chicago volunteers, which was one of a proposed regiment; but other regiments filled up and were accepted before the ranks of his were full, and when it was announced that the quota was complete, he and his patriotic comrades were “left out in the cold,” and disbanded. He afterwards, during the military and naval excitements and movements at and from St. Louis and Cairo, in company with another artist, undertook the work of painting a “panorama of the war,” from sketches made in those places, and from other sources; but before it was finished he disposed of his interest in the enterprise to his partner.
His next undertaking was the organization of the “Douglas Monument Association,” to erect a monument over the remains of his great friend and patron, who had but recently died. Aided by Rev. William Barry, D. A. Gage and others, he pushed this work forward with energy and success. He was made the Secretary of the Association, in which capacity he has acted ever since, devoting much time to the interests of the society. The Association accepted his plan for the proposed monument, the laying of the corner-stone of which was so imposingly celebrated in the autumn of 1866, and the first section of which is now in process of construction under his superintendence. By the request of the widow of Judge Douglas, Mr. Volk took charge of the Douglas grounds in the southern part of the city, and has lived most of the time since in a cottage which he now owns, once occupied by Douglas, at Cottage Grove.
In the meantime, Mr, Volk by no means neglected his profession, other general interests of art in the city. He has ever been active, in conjunction with George P. A. Healy, the great portrait painter, in behalf of art, and in assisting such of his fellow artists as were struggling for success. He succeeded in getting subscribers to purchase Mr. Healy’s valuable private gallery of paintings, which have been placed in the keeping of Hon. J. Y. Scammon, to be held in trust for the subscribers. A chartered association has recently been formed, which will in due time open a public Art Gallery, with this collection as a nucleus. With the generous assistance of Hon. John B. Turner and David A. Gage, Esq., he, in company with another artist, leased the old Walker mansion, on the corner of State and Washington streets, and opened it as an “Art Building,” with studios, and here Mr. Volk, who subsequently bought out the interest of his associate, had his headquarters until recently, and now permanently occupies his own elegant marble-front building, arranged by himself for business and art purposes, situate on Washington, between Wells and Franklin streets, which he has erected at considerable expense, aided in the enterprise by his friend. Dr. Ednnnid C. Rogers, brother of the sculptor before named. At the old place above named, he made his celebrated marble bust of Lincoln, and duplicated the same, on a commission from a gentleman in Vermont; also a marble bust of Douglas, and many other minor works, for citizens of Chicago and elsewhere. He has paid much attention to designs for monuments for parks and cemeteries, doing considerable sculptured work on them, as, for example, that of the Firemen’s Monument at Rosehill, and several military monuments, one of which was ordered by Dan Rice, the noted showman, at a cost of five thousand dollars, which he had erected, at his personal expense, at Girard, Pennsylvania, in honor of the soldiers of Erie County. He had previously executed a marble bust of Mr. Rice. He has also, within a few years past, made many medallions for his monumental designs, and several symbolic and ideal figures, all of which were executed in the finest style of art.
Mr. Volk was the chief organizer and manager of the Art Galleries which formed so attractive a feature of the two great Chicago Sanitary Fairs—one in 1863, and the other in 1865—for the aid of the sick and wounded soldiers of the war. Our citizens will not soon forget those tastefully arranged and successful Art Galleries. Nobody knows to this day, except Mr. Volk himself, how much time, care, labor and anxiety those exhibitions, to which he gave Meeks of gratuitous attention, cost him; but he felt himself more than rewarded by their complete success. He worked in the cause of art, doubly stimulated by the patriotic object for which these fairs were held, and hence he found a satisfaction in it that words cannot express.
While his attention was almost entirely given, for weeks, to the Art Gallery of the last of the two Sanitary Fairs above referred to, a great demand suddenly sprung up all over the country for plaster copies of his bust of Lincoln, who had just been assassinated. He trusted the business of supplying this demand to employees, and consequently he failed to realize as much out of it as he should have done. Parties in New York, and elsewhere, also infringed his patent by duplicating the bust—the same thing that was attempted in Chicago by itinerant Italian figure-venders, in 1861, when Mr. Volk, “taking the law into his own hands,” entered their shops, and broke to pieces all their, moulds and casts, for which they prosecuted him for “trespass,” and finally for “riot,” but, failing to get satisfaction, have since then carefully avoided an infringement upon his rights or property.
With the imperfect sketch already given we must draw to a close, with the remark that, although, his career has been one of hardships, failures and discouragements, such as nearly all the devotees of art experience until they have firmly established themselves, yet the present is full of brightness for him, and the future promises not only temporal success and good fortune, but an immortality which none can more gloriously achieve tlian they who, by the force of genius, chisel it into the enduring; marble of the earth.
Inter Ocean, August 20, 1895
Mr. Volk’s works include the statues of Lincoln and Douglas, now in the State House in Springfield, and busts of Henry Keep, Zachariah Chandler, G. B. Armstrong, George S. Hubbard, Rev. Jeremiah Porter, Zuinglius Grover, Leonard Swett, Dr. Daniel Brainard, Bishop Fowler, David Davis, Thomas B. Bryan, Elihn B. Washburne, and others. Of all the works of Mr. Volk, however, that upon which his fame rests most secure, and which is one of of the artistic glories of Chicago, is the famous and superb monument over the tomb of Senator Douglas in Woodland Park. One of his latest works is a heroic statue of General James Shields.