The American Sculptor Who Rebuilt Faceless Veterans

During World War I, Anna Coleman Ladd – born 145 years ago this month – moved to Paris and made masks for men whose physical identities had been ripped apart by the conflict. Thanks to her artistic talents, around 100 disfigured veterans were given a new lease on life.
© American Red Cross/Library of Congress

Charles Victor wore his memories of the Great War – four medals and a terrible facial wound. After being caught in a grenade explosion, he became one of Anna Coleman Ladd’s patients and expressed his gratitude to her in 1920. At the time, he was a mailman in Orphin, southwest of Paris. “I offer you my sincere thanks for the exceptional work you have left in France,” he wrote in a letter, which is now kept at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. “All our lives, we will think of […] our good friends from the great America who have been so kind and generous to France’s war wounded.”

A renowned artist in her time, the American sculptor exhibited her Neoclassical works in Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City. Yet gallerists were never interested in the most moving aspect of her work: prosthetics she created during an 11-month stay in Paris to help mutilated soldiers returning from the war. In 1939, seven years before her death, this dedication earned her the Légion d’Honneur. “I can’t explain how good it feels to work on this sort of project,” she said to a journalist visiting her studio during the war. “And how rewarding it is to spread such joy! The other day, one of my little soldiers used his mask for the first time, and he told me: ‘I went outside, and no one stares at me anymore!’”

The Suffering of Mutilated Soldiers

They were impossible to miss. From the streets of Paris to rural French towns, the wounded bore their marks like a cross. Scars from a new type of war, a global, large-scale, industrialized conflict. Heavy artillery, explosive projectiles, devastating shrapnel, and machine guns capable of firing 600 rounds a minute had maimed and mutilated at unprecedented levels. In France alone, the Great War left four million injured, more than a million of whom subsequently lived with a disability. Some 15,000 in this latter group had facial wounds, and were referred to as les mutilés de la face or les gueules cassées (literally, “the broken faces”).

“It is not uncommon to see truly horrifying cases, with faces more or less completely torn away by exploding shells,” wrote a surgeon in 1917. “The nose and maxilla are replaced with a gaping hole, at the bottom of which the open pharynx and the epiglottis are visible.” Several years previously, most of these soldiers would have died on the battlefield. However, World War I had led to incredible medical progress. Medics and military doctors were now capable of treating victims while reducing the risk of hemorrhage, asphyxiation, infection, and gangrene before transporting them to a specialist hospital.

The most serious cases were sent to the Val-de-Grâce in Paris, where the darkly nicknamed le service des baveux (“the slobber ward”) spanned a full three floors. Marc Dugain set his 1998 novel The Officers’ Ward there. Reconstructive surgery had also benefited from considerable advances, and patients underwent long, painful operations to receive grafts and transplants – of bone, cartilage, upper jaws, and skin – in the hope of restoring the shape of a human face. As if referring to a construction site, the doctors spoke of “consolidations” and “finishing touches,” while the most acerbic patients founded a newspaper called La Greffe générale (“The Daily Graft”).

Art in the Service of Medicine

This is where Anna Coleman Ladd came in. In 1917, while living in Boston, she discovered an article about the Tin Nose Shop. Working out of a hospital in London, English captain Francis Derwent Wood was creating bespoke metal masks that were lighter, more comfortable, and more aesthetically pleasing than the rubber models or strips of fabric given to mutilated soldiers as a last resort. “My work begins when the work of the surgeon is completed,” he wrote in the Lancet medical journal. “I endeavor by means of the skills I happen to possess as a sculptor to make a man’s face as near as possible to what it looked like before he was wounded.”

Inspired to action after her country joined the war, the American artist decided to open a similar space in France. As a sculptor trained in Paris and Rome, she had carved out a solid reputation within the Boston smart set, and had created a bronze fountain for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Her husband, a Harvard-educated pediatrician, introduced her to his contacts and she entered into negotiations with the American Red Cross. Her prayers were answered, and Anna Coleman Ladd crossed the Atlantic in December 1917. While her husband ran a dispensary near the frontline in Meurthe-et-Moselle, she contacted her colleague in London and started learning to make masks.

In the spring of 1918, the Studio for Portrait Masks opened in the Montparnasse neighborhood of the French capital. To promote the opening, the American Red Cross – which also set up several functional and professional rehabilitation centers for disabled veterans in France – sent a memo to hospitals and published advertisements in the press. Le Petit Journal picked up the news and published the following: “Mrs. Maynard Ladd, the American artist who makes masks for individuals with facial mutilations, resides at 70 bis Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs. This is where surgeons and those wounded in the war, discharged or otherwise, may enquire.”

© American Red Cross/Library of Congress
© American Red Cross/Library of Congress
© American Red Cross/Library of Congress
© American Red Cross/Library of Congress
© American Red Cross/Library of Congress
© American Red Cross/Library of Congress
© American Red Cross/Library of Congress
© American Red Cross/Library of Congress

The War Veterans’ Workshop

On the fourth floor, a sign showed visitors to the right door: “Mrs. Maynard Ladd, artist-sculptor.” The American woman received her patients in a modestly decorated room bathed in natural light. Several statuettes stood on a table, while a few green plants, a rug, and a star-spangled banner completed the aesthetic. Soldiers would wait their turn sat in wicker chairs. Anna Coleman Ladd first took a plaster cast of their faces before filling in the missing features using photos taken before the war. This mold would be added to the line of frozen grimaces drying on the walls and was used as a model.

Parisian silverware company Christofle then took care of electroplating, in which a fine layer of silver-copper alloy was applied to the cast. The soldier then tried on the mask before returning it for adjustments. Anna Coleman Ladd used a brush and paint imported from the United States to recreate the pigmentation of the skin, the beard, or the mustache. In total, each mask took at least 20 days to complete. The final piece weighed in at around 4 ounces, and was held on the face with a rubber band or a false pair of glasses (this latter style is the one worn by Richard Harrow in the show Boardwalk Empire). The mouth was designed to be slightly open to enable the wearer to speak… and smoke!

Although modern historians have questioned the benefits of such fragile, uncomfortable facial prosthetics, whose production never matched demand, these masks had a hugely positive psychological impact on disfigured soldiers. These men, often lonely and withdrawn, suddenly found the courage to return to public life or reconnect with their families. Some wrote moving letters to the sculptor, sharing news of their recovery, their wives, and their growing families. “Thanks to you, I can live again,” wrote Marc Maréchal, a member of a disabled veterans association in Castres, in Southern France. “Thanks to you, I am not hidden away at the back of an old hospital.”

“A Virtual Resurrection”

To promote the project, the American Red Cross shared photos taken before and after the work of Anna Coleman Ladd and her colleagues, which included French artists Jane Poupelet and Robert Wlérick. The press was stunned. “[Wounded soldiers] now know […] that if science has nothing more to offer, art can give them hope – and better still, the certainty of a virtual resurrection,” wrote Le Petit Journal. A few days later, a reporter from La Petite République visited the studio on Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs and published the following front-page headline: “A Land of Marvels: Art to the Rescue of Charity.”

The Studio for Portrait Masks closed after some 100 prostheses were made and was transferred to Val-de-Grâce Hospital in October 1919. Meanwhile, Anna Coleman Ladd returned to the United States and her sculptures, but she never forgot the war. A nurse at a military camp in Iowa wrote to her asking for advice on how to make her own masks. And when she wasn’t making statues inspired by mythology, the sculptor was creating war memorials, such as her striking bas-relief Night. This commission from the veterans’ association in Manchester, Massachusetts, depicted a wounded body caught in barbed wire – a final tribute to the victims of war.

The masks of the gueules cassées have since gone down in pop culture history. In 1925, the Hollywood adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera replaced the Venetian domino mask from Gaston Leroux’s original novel (1910) with a facial prosthesis. This accessory was later adopted by the musical when it arrived on Broadway in 1988. More recently, in his 2013 novel The Great Swindle, Pierre Lemaitre portrays a young, disfigured soldier who decorates his mask to create extravagant Surrealist art. When asked about her work in Paris and her faceless patients, Anna Coleman Ladd simply said: “They were never treated as though anything were the matter with them. We laughed with them and helped them to forget. That is what they longed for and deeply appreciated.”

Article published in the July-August 2023 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.