Thanks to the US $1, George Washington has one of the most recognizable faces in America. This President’s Day, I got to thinking about that portrait and two excellent exhibits I saw a few years ago at Mount Vernon and the National Gallery about the real likeness of George Washington.
The dollar and a large number of contemporary and future Washington paintings are based on an unfinished portrait done by Gilbert Stuart in 1796. At the time of the sitting, George was 64 and retired to Mount Vernon. His teeth had been a constant source of pain since the first one was extracted when he was 22. When he started his presidency, only one real tooth remained in his head. Several sets of dentures were made for Washington over his life by incorporating human teeth and carved bone or tusk teeth into a metal cage. None these were reported to have fit well and must have caused him considerable discomfort.
On the day Washington sat for Gilbert Stuart, he was struggling with a set of false teeth. Stuart notes, “When I painted him, he had just had a set of false teeth inserted, which accounts for the constrained expression so noticeable about the mouth and lower part of the face.” Look back at Stuart’s portrait. Washington’s jaw does appears to be clenched, pushed somewhat forward and bulky. This immediately recognizable portrait is likely not the most realistic.
Eleven years before the Stuart portrait, sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon met with Washington a made a life mask – a process in which plaster is applied to a face for an accurate sculptural model. This likeness seems less tense and the jaw line less protruded.
This life mask and the bust Houdon made from it were used by Mount Vernon to create “the real George Washington”. Through an interesting forensic anthropology project, the sculptures an other artifacts were scanned, analyzed and used to construct three wax faces meant to represent George Washington at 19, 45 and 57 year of age. Life-sized figures were created by examining existing clothing and written descriptions of the Washington’s posture. (You can watch a short video about the process done by the History Channel here.) The end result is incredibly impressive. The three Washington figures were one my favorite parts of visiting Mount Vernon as they help piece together a more life-like representation an American legends.