There is a lengthy history of taking impressions from the face of a corpse. One might have been made for Alexander the Great. Certain keen-eyed academics have argued that the indigenous peoples of Arkansas cast pots from the heads of their dead relatives. But they really came to the fore in the nineteenth century, when doctors and traveling specialists did brisk business taking plaster casts from celebrities and criminals. They adorned family mantels. Phrenologists sought them out as teaching tools, and taught students to read worlds into the bumps and grooves of cheekbones and foreheads. Artists incorporated death masks into commemorative busts, such as that made of Napoleon I by François Carlo Antommarchi.
The death mask became popular thanks to the assumption that it was a portrait par excellence. Laurence Hutton, a nineteenth-century collector known for sifting the trash of medical schools in search of specimens, claimed that “it must, of necessity, be absolutely true to nature.” He hearkened in part to the mechanical exactitude of the process, which seemed to transcribe the subject’s features more accurately than any human sculptor. He also subscribed to the popular notion that in death our bodies become honest corpses. To wit: Sir Walter Scott remarked on Napoleon’s propensity to conceal his thoughts while alive. Wearing a polite smile whenever he thought himself observed, the tyrant presented “the fixed and rigid eyes of a marble bust” to enemies and acquaintances alike. In contrast, Hutton crowed that Napoleon’s death mask caught him off guard.