Famous Death Masks Isaac Newton

About the history of the plastar death mask made of English scientist Isaac Newton.


ISAAC NEWTON (1642-1727), English physicist

Newton's scientific interests and activities continued almost to the day of his death in his 85th year. He presided at a meeting of the Royal Society in London for the last time in March, 1727, but the trip exhausted him. Succeeding days brought severe pain from an old bladder complaint; he lapsed into a coma and died on Mar. 20 at his home in Pitt Street, Kensington, where he had moved to escape London air pollution.

Here French-born sculptor Louis Francois Roubillac (English form, Roubilliac) took the death mask as a model for fashioning his famous later statues of the scientist. Many art critics regard Roubillac as probably the greatest sculptor to work in England during the 18th century.

Marking a new European homage toward human genius for its own sake, Newton was the first commoner to receive the national tribute of burial in Westminster Abbey. Yet "to myself," he wrote, "I seem to have been only like a boy, playing on the seashore. . .now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."

After Roubillac's death in 1762, the mask was obtained by the Royal Society, which still holds it. The cast shown is from the Laurence Hutton Collection at Princeton University.

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