Soldier’s Return

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When he finally rose from the dinner table, Washington disappeared into his library or outdoors into his gardens. Toward evening, he drank “one small glass of punch, a draught of beer, and two dishes of tea.” Although “a very elegant” supper was served to his guests, he did not appear but went to bed at nine. If, however, intimate friends or individuals who brought interesting news arrived toward evening, Washington would come to the supper table. Then he would drink several glasses of champagne, get “quite merry,” and laugh and talk “a great deal.”

A fairly typical visitor was a young merchant, Elkanah Watson, who shared with Washington a passion for canal building. The General, Watson wrote, soon put me at my ease, by unbending, in a free and affable conversation. The cautious reserve, which wisdom and policy dictated, whilst engaged in rearing the glorious fabric of our independence, was evidently the result oE consummate prudence, and not characteristic of his nature … I observed a peculiarity in his smile, which seemed to illuminate his eye: his whole countenance beamed with intelligence, while it commanded confidence and respect. … I found him kind and benignant in the domestic circle, revered and beloved by all around him; agreeably social, without ostentation; delighting in anecdote and adventures without assumption; his domestic arrangements harmonious and systematic.

Watson had a bad cough. Washington (who himself avoided taking medicines) tried vainly to press some nostrum on his visitor. During the night, Watson’s cough increased, and then he heard a noise. “On drawing my bed-curtains, to my utter astonishment, I beheld Washington himself, standing at my bedside, with a bowl of hot tea in his hand. I was mortified and distressed beyond expression.”

Among the more complimentary—and plaguing—of Washington’s visitors were artists who wished to spread his likeness through an eager world. From the time he was first painted as an uncelebrated Virginia planter, Washington had found it embarrassing to sit still and be studied. During 1785, he responded to a letter introducing the English artist Robert Edge Pine: In for a penny, in for a pound is an old adage. I am so hackneyed to the touches of the Painters’ pencil, tnat I am now altogether at their beck, and sit like patience on a Monument whilst they are delineating the lines of my face.

It is a proof among many others of what habit and custom can effect. At first I was as impatient at the request, and as restive under the operation, as a Colt is of the Saddle. The next time, I submitted very reluctantly, but with less flouncing. Now no dray moves more readily to the Thill, than I do to the Painters Chair.

Sculptors came, first the obscure Joseph Wright, operating on a private speculation, and then the celebrated French artist Jean Antoine Houdon, who had been employed in Paris by Jefferson and Franklin to create a heroic statue which had been commissioned by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Both sculptors started out by making a life mask. Concerning Wright’s effort, Washington stated: I consented with some reluctance. He oiled my features over, and placing me flat upon my back, upon a cot, proceeded to daub my face with the plaster. Whilst in this ludicrous attitude, Mrs. Washington entered the room, and seeing my face thus overspread with the plaster, involuntarily exclaimed. Her cry excited in me a disposition to smile, which gave my mouth a slight twist or compression of the lips, that is now observable in the busts Wright afterwards made.

Houdon appeared with three assistants. Jefferson, who seems to have feared that Washington would hesitate to receive an artist, had written that the sculptor moved in the best circles. Jefferson need not have worried: Washington was used to entertaining men of all ranks. He lodged the sculptor and his assistants for more than two weeks and then sent them up the Potomac in his “barge.” They carried with them not only the life mask (see page 10) but casts and measurements of his body, all to be combined into the statue in Paris.

Eventually Washington wrote Jefferson, objecting diffidently—“not having sufficient knowledge in the art of sculpture to oppose my judgment to the taste of Connoisseiurs”—to being shown dressed as Cincinnatus in an ancient toga. He urged at least “some little deviation in favor of the modern costume,” adding that he would not have dared make this suggestion had he not been told that Benjamin West, the leading American painter resident in London, had pressed such modernity on Houdon, and that “this taste, which has been introduced in painting by West, I understand is received with applause and prevails extensively.”

In May, 1785, there rolled up the driveway one of England’s most notorious women, Catharine Sawbridge Macaulay Graham, who had struck out for liberty and excoriated the Tories in her eight-volume History of England from the Accession of James I to that of the Brunswick Line . She surely wore more rouge than any other lady ever entertained at Mount Vernon—John Wilkes described her as “painted up to the eyes” and looking “as rotten as an old Catherine pear”—and she had in tow a lower-class youth of about twenty whom, at the age of almost fifty, she had married, to the publicly expressed despair of her elderly lover and the titters of British society. The bridegroom’s elder brother was a notorious quack who operated at fashionable Bath a Temple of Health which featured the electrified royal Patagonian bed that was supposed to enhance sexual pleasures and was reputed to be the inspiration of the marriage of the elderly “historian in petticoats” to her juvenile surgeon’s mate.