Masks, Models, & Maquettes

The process of creating a new work can often be a long and arduous journey, beginning with a simple idea and then slowly, painstakingly working toward a finished piece. 

The museum's collections contain many plaster objects which are easily recognizable as various parts of the body. There are hands, feet, faces, and even elbows! Some of these objects are very detailed, showcasing every wrinkle and pore in the skin. Others are smooth and polished. In terms of the methods Ney used to guide her sculpting process, we've organized these objects into masks, models, and maquettes. 

Dr. Jacob Bickler, Death Mask, 1902

Dr. Jacob Bickler, Death Mask, 1902

Life and Death Masks 

Mask making is one of the oldest artistic traditions in most ancient cultures.

Death masks (or casts) in particular are common in many cultures as a way to memorialize the passing of loved ones by creating a mold of the person after they have died. In the same way that we cherish family photos of our loved ones who have died, these masks were a unique way to capture the living features of a person before the invention of photography. the tradition of making deeath masks dates as far back as the Neolithic, and since then they have remained an important part of the funeral traditions in many cultures, even in modern times. In museums collections around the world we can still the actual face of historically important persons, including scientists, musicians and politicians like Napolean Bonaparte, Abraham Lincoln, and Isaac Newton. 

Ney made several death casts, not only of important politicians, but also of friends and family members of friends. In the case of makings masks of politicians, she used these casts to guide her in sculpting their portraits posthumously. 

Elisabet Ney, life cast mask, 1862

Elisabet Ney, life cast mask, 1862

Life casts were also a popular form of study aids for sculptors. To create these life casts, the sculptors would create a mold of the body part the wished to copy and would fill that mold with plaster. These life casts helped Ney capture the complicated curves and angles of the human form, especially the details of a human face, while making portraits. The collection contains many of Ney's life casts, including two of her own face. 


Drawing models like Cast showing musculature of shoulder and arm and Nose were made in a factory and sold to artists and students so they could practice making accurate drawings of the body without needing a living model to work from. While masks could provide detailed representations of a subject's face, Ney used study models for other anatomical aspects such as feet, ears, noses, skulls, and more. She sometimes even modified mass produced study aids to more fully capture the image she was looking for, like in the case of Skull


Maquettes, which are scale models or "rough drafts" of an unfinished sculpture, are used in a similar way. These models allow sculptors to test out different forms and ideas without expending the immense amount of time and energy needed to produce a full-scale sculpture. There are several examples of maquettes in the Ney's archives, including preliminary versions of Lady Macbeth, Stephen Fuller Austin (wearing buckskin), and other lesser known pieces.