Friday, November 21, 2014


I have mentioned before that everywhere you look in Chicago's Rosehill Cemetery you will encounter history.  I have also noted that Rosehill has some of the finest examples of funerary art I have ever seen.  Many of the most striking pieces in Rosehill are the work of one man - noted sculptor Leonard Volk.  A good place to start would be with Volk's own "tombstone" at Rosehill which was designed by him and executed by the Gast Monument Company:

Before we journey around Rosehill to see more of Volk's work, let's see what we can learn about the man himself.

Leonard Wells Volk was born November 7, 1828 in Wellstown (now Wells), New York to Garret Volk (1788-1862) and Elizabeth nee Gesner (1790-1851).  Garret Volk had been born in New Jersey but was a Private in the New York State Militia during the War of 1812. He was a stone and marble cutter by trade.

Elizabeth Gesner had been born in New York.  Elizabeth and Garret were married in New York in 1808.

It was said that Garret and Elizabeth had twelve children: 4 girls and 8 boys.  I can only account for 9 children in total:

Born Died
Thomas 1808
John 1810
Catherine 1812
Maria 1816
Elizabeth (Minnie) 1818 1888
Cornelius G. 1823
Leonard 1828 1895
Abram 1829 1900
Thomas Jefferson 1830 1860

Part of the difficulty in tracking down all of Leonard's siblings is because the Volk family moved around so much in those days.  Although a stone cutter by trade, Garret Volk kept trying his hand at farming and kept failing.  As a successful marble cutter, Garret had been hired to work on the New York City Hall.  He quit this job and took up farming in New Jersey.  Failing at that, he tried farming again - this time in Northern New York - and again he failed.  Financial hardship caused him to go back to the stone cutting business, this time in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

Garret ultimately bought yet another farm - this time in Berkshire, Massachusetts, while engaging in a stone cutting business with his oldest sons in Pittsfield.  In later years, Leonard Volk recounted that he worked on his father's farms "like a slave" until he was sixteen.  Leonard said that 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.  His last attendance at school was at Lanesboro, Massachusetts which he left when he turned sixteen so that he could work in his family's marble "manufactory."

After becoming sufficiently skilled as an apprentice, he went to Springfield, Massachusetts, working there, and subsequently to Pittsfield, Massachusetts as a journeyman.  At the request of one of his elder brothers, also a carver of marble, Leonard Volk moved to Bethany, New York.  During these times in Bethany he became acquainted with Miss Emily Clarissa Barlow (1834-1895) but more about her later.

After working in Bethany for several months, Volk worked in Batavia, Rochester, Albion and Buffalo, and for a time was in partnership with another brother of his in the marble trade in Batavia.

In the meantime, the parents of Miss Barlow moved to St. Louis, Missouri, taking their daughter with them.  Not taking any chances, in 1848 Leonard Volk accepted an offer of $50.00 per month from a marble establishment in St. Louis and moved there himself.

The 1850 US Census finds twenty two year old Leonard Volk living alone in St. Louis, Missouri, listing his occupation as "Sculptor." Wanting to become established before he proposed to Miss Barlow, Volk saved up $500.00 in his first year in Missouri and used the finds to set up his own studio where he produced models in clay and made drawings.  One of his first efforts was a bust of Emily Barlow's father, Dr. J. K. Barlow.  History does not record what Dr. Barlow or Emily thought of the bust.

Volk's reputation was spreading and in 1851 he sculpted a bust in marble of Henry Clay, the first sculpted bust in marble executed west of the Mississippi River:

Henry Clay by Leonard Volk

That same year he was commissioned by Catholic Archbishop Kenrick to sculpt medallions of Major Thomas Biddle and his wife for their mausoleum.

The Biddle Mausoleum

Major Thomas Biddle
Major Thomas Biddle by Leonard Volk
Anne Biddle

Despite his commissions, Volk was unable to make enough money from his sculptures to even cover his expenses, let alone show a profit. He decided to move to Galena to see if things would be more profitable for him in a new location.  About this time, on April 28, 1852 Leonard Volk married Clarissa Barlow at Dubuque, Iowa.

One day while living in Galena, Volk received a visit from the Hon. Stephen A. Douglas.  Douglas and Emily Barlow Volk were first cousins. Judge Douglas told Volk that to be a success he must move to Chicago, a growing city with people willing and able to spend money on sculptures.  Did Volk listen?  No, he instead moved back to St. Louis, where he was no more successful than he was the first time he lived there.  So, Volk moved again, this time to Rock Island, still not achieving financial success.

It was not all business for Leonard Volk.  On April 23, 1853, while they were living in St. Louis, Emily Volk gave birth to their son Arthur Douglas Volk (1853-1855). 

Two and one half years after their first visit, Judge Douglas again suggested that Volk move to Chicago and offered to underwrite a trip for Volk to Italy to study with the masters there in the world's best schools of art.  Volk gladly accepted and moved to Chicago in 1855.  

After attending to all the details for his trip, Volk, made arrangements for hs wife and son to stay in Pittsfield with one of Volk's brothers. Before he left for Europe, Clarissa Volk shared the good news with her husband that she was expecting another child, but Leonard Volk knew she would be in good hands with his family in Pittsfield.  At long last, in September, 1855 Leonard Volk set sail from New York to Liverpool aboard the ship "Columbia."  After a long and tedious voyage he reached Liverpool, then on to London, staying a few days to visit the museums; then on to Paris to attend the French World's Exposition. After a week in Paris he left for Rome.  During Volk's eighteen month stay in Rome he studied the great works of art in galleries, churches and studios.  The artists he met in Rome treated him cordially and gave him the free use of their studios. While occupying the studios of Mr. Chauncey B. Ives in Rome, Volk completed his first sculpture there: "Boy Washington Cutting the Cherry Tree."  (Readers of this blog will remember that the famous sculpture of Frances Pearce Stone and her child at Rosehill Cemetery was by Chauncey Ives):

While working in Rome, Leonard Volk received word of the death of his son Arthur on October 31, 1855 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.  This news cast a cloud over an otherwise wonderful trip for Volk but was tempered slightly by the news that Clarissa Volk had delivered another son on February 23, 1856 in Pittsfield.  They named him Stephen Arnold Douglas Volk (1856-1935).

Leonard Volk left Rome in January, 1857 for Florence.  After spending some time there he began his voyage home, sailing from Leghorn (Livorno), Italy to Gibraltar and then on to New York, arriving on May 18, 1857.  Bad weather stretched the trip to seventy-four days.  In June of 1857 Volk finally returned home to Chicago joining his wife Clarissa and visiting young Arthur's grave in Rosehill Cemetery.  After Arthur's burial, Clarissa decided to remain in Chicago instead of returning to Massachusetts.  You will remember that Volk's European trip was underwritten by Judge Stephen  A. Douglas; when Volk arrived home he had just five dollars left in his pocket.

However, Judge Douglas continued his support of Volk, giving him the money to open a small studio in Chicago.  But 1857 was a rough year financially and few people had any money for sculptures.  Through the remainder of 1857 and in to 1858 Volk made money cutting cameo likenesses of friends for thirty dollars each, and he also was commissioned to do a lifesize statue of a boy for two hundred fifty dollars.

In 1858 Stephen A. Douglas ran for the US Senate against a little know Springfield lawyer named Abraham Lincoln.  During that campaign, Volk received a commission for a life size statue of Stephen Douglas. This kept the wolves from Volk's door, and became the nucleus of the first Fine Arts Exposition of the Northwest which Volk organized in 1859.

Leonard Volk spent the winter of 1860 in Washington "publishing" a statuette of then Senator Douglas who Volk rightly believed would be a candidate for president, but even that did not prove profitable.  (Who would want to decorate their home with statuettes of politicians???)

Two years previously Volk had asked Abraham Lincoln to sit for a bust but their schedules never seemed to align.  By the Spring of 1860 Volk had returned to Chicago, and Lincoln, in Chicago on legal business, agreed at long last to sit for Volk.  The sittings were in Volk's studio at #47 in the Portland Block.

During the political campaign of 1860 Volk circulated his busts of Lincoln and Douglas all over the country, again with little financial success.  Here is a photo of Volk with his busts of Douglas and Lincoln:

Two months after Lincoln's election, Volk was in Springfield and asked Lincoln to appoint him Counsel at Leghorn (Livorno) in Italy but in the end Lincoln appointed someone else.

In 1861 Volk spent most ofthe winter in the first Chicago Art Union which was started for the benefit of local artists.  The breakout of the war seriously interfered with this, and it ultimately was abandoned.

Hostilities broke out on April 12, 1861.  Lincoln immediately put out a call for volunteers and Volk enlisted in a Company of Chicago volunteers which was part of a proposed regiment.  However, other regiments filled up and were accepted before the ranks of his were full, and when it was announced that the quota was complete, Volk's Company was disbanded.

Next week we will look at the increasing fame of Leonard Volk - the Douglas Monument, the Volunteer Fireman's Memorial, and his other works in Rosehill Cemetery.   

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