November/December 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 6
How Mount Vernon Rebuilt The First President
What did George Washington really look like? We have a lot of familiar pictures of him, but they never quite agree with one another, and more were made when he was old than when he was young. So when the people who run Mount Vernon, Washington’s estate on the Potomac River in Virginia, wanted exact life-sized likenesses of him at the ages of 19, 45, and 57 for their new visitors’ center, they turned to the tools of forensic anthropology. Those tools produced arresting and utterly convincing results.
The effort was led by Jeffrey H. Schwartz, a physical anthropologist at the University of Pittsburgh who has worked both in reconstructing early hominids and in a county coroner’s office. “Usually you would use bones,” he says, “but we didn’t have permission to look at Washington’s bones.” So he turned to what he calls secondary and tertiary sources of information. The secondary sources were the life mask of Washington made when he was 53 by the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, as well as the bust and full-length statue made from that mask; “surviving and provenanced dentures” (George Washington’s false teeth); and clothing. The tertiary sources were portraits and letters, diaries, and other written sources.
Digital 3-D scanning of the Houdon mask and bust revealed that the bust followed the mask very accurately. “The bust became my gold standard,” he says, “because of its identity with the mask face.” The head on the Houdon statue turned out to differ from the mask and bust only in minute ways; it is more pointed, and the chin sticks out more. Schwartz concluded that Houdon made those changes not for cosmetic reasons but to compensate for the fact that once the statue was on a pedestal, the viewer would be looking at Washington’s face from below. (“The Houdon statue is like Michelangelo’s David ,” he says. “Look at it straight on and it looks wrong.”) Measurements of two portraits painted by Charles Willson Peale when Washington was in his forties revealed that they agreed remarkably closely with Houdon. “The familiar Gilbert Stuart images were the least like Washington,” Schwartz says.
At 57 Washington had a pockmark on his left cheek from the smallpox he was stricken by when he was 19. He also had taut lips from holding in his dentures and a chin slightly longer on one side because of his pattern of tooth loss. Digital 3-D scans of the two Peale portraits of Washington in his forties show a slightly longer distance from nose to chin and less taut lips; this corresponds with the fact that Washington had had less bone loss then and wasn’t holding in dentures.
To arrive at a 19-year-old Washington, Schwartz had to turn the older man into one with all his teeth and then work backward. He started by finding an eighteenth-century jaw similar to Washington’s, digitally scaling it to fit into the head, digitally removing bone and teeth to match what Washington had lost, and further refining it to fit Washington’s dentures and the exact shape of his head according to the Houdon-based scans. Then he took the result and digitally restored all the teeth and lost bone. He also made adjustments because Washington “was not yet hormonally mature. The eye sockets were less deep, the brow region wasn’t fully developed, there was more fat in his cheeks, and I had to shrink the nose and ears to reduce the cartilage growth that comes with aging.”
He learned a lot from Washington’s clothing, knowing that much of it would have been custom-made and very exact-fitting but “a little loose around the waist for eating.” Washington’s clothes showed him slightly “girthier,” Schwartz says, than the Houdon statue, again probably the result of the artist’s concessions to perspective. Washington had been corseted from the age of five, in the style of the time, to develop a correct posture, and this gave him his characteristic slightly arched back and pulled-back shoulders. (“That’s why everyone in the Trumbull painting of the signers of the Declaration of Independence looks so different from anyone in the nineteenth century,” Schwartz says.)
Using all the digital data he had gathered, Schwartz had models of the head and body at the three ages he wanted (and in the postures in which they’d be set in the dioramas that would give them realistic surroundings) milled from plastic foam. He worked with a sculptor, Stuart Williamson, to give each face a lifelike expression; had an artist, Sue Day, paint the faces; and had hair implanted and clothing put on.
“I wanted the young George Washington, at 19—a surveyor in the Shenandoah Valley—to have pride in what he’s doing and the excitement of not knowing what the future holds,” he says. “At 45, at Valley Forge, I wanted to convey both his strength as a leader and his exhaustion. At 57 I wanted to get the solemnity, the importance of the moment of his inauguration as President.”
Schwartz, a mild man with a carefully trimmed gray beard and wire-rimmed glasses, was not being immodest when he recently wrote about the whole experience: “My collaborators and I have made inroads into fusing science, art, and history in ways that were hardly imaginable even a few years ago.”— Frederick E. Allen