Buffing Up The Image Of George Washington
Tuesday, August 30, 2005
Despite what he looks like on the dollar bill, it turns out George Washington may have been kind of hot.
This is unsettling for those of us who prefer to think of our first president in more statesmanlike terms. He is so stiff and grim in all those portraits. But before Washington was middle-aged and the father of our country, he was a tall, strapping 19-year-old surveyor who still had all his teeth.
For the first time, it's possible to see what the teenage Washington probably looked like, and though at this stage he is nude and hairless, he will be fully realized in October 2006 when he goes on display at Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens. Young George will be a life-size figure with auburn hair and gray-blue eyes, perhaps propping his foot on a stump in a manly fashion as he scans the horizon.
The folks at Mount Vernon are hoping the new George will help Americans see him as he was before he was famous, before Gilbert Stuart painted him, back when he was an "adventurous, athletic, risk-taking, courageous kind of action hero," says Jim Rees, the estate's executive director. Washington was extremely tall for his time (just over 6 feet 2), had a regal bearing and "larger than average hands and feet."
"Abigail Adams just goes on and on and on about the presence of Washington, about what it was like to be around him, which I'm sure drove her husband just crazy," Rees says.
Washington will be re-created at ages 19, 45 and 57 through the work of Jeffrey Schwartz, a physical anthropologist at the University of Pittsburgh who has been studying bones for 35 years. Schwartz is used to forensic cases. Typically he reconstructs the faces of the dead from their bones. With Washington, he has done the opposite, reconstructing the famous man's bones based on what he looked like, and then working back to figure out what the flesh on those bones looked like when Washington was 19 and "good-looking."
The man did not age well. Schwartz has studied Washington's dentures and says that by the time he was inaugurated in 1789 at age 57, he had only one tooth left. As he lost teeth, he lost bone in his jaw, Schwartz says, so the shape of his face changed. His lower jaw became thinner and less symmetrical, and his upper jaw receded. Meanwhile, changes in cartilage would probably have elongated his nose and ears. He also had a pockmark probably caused by smallpox he contracted on a trip to Barbados at 19, Schwartz says.
To reimagine the Father of Our Country in youth, just before he got that pockmark, Schwartz worked with scholars at Arizona State University to scan the earliest portraits, done when Washington was 40 and 47. They also scanned Washington's dentures, a statue, a bust and a life mask done of his face when he was 53. They reconfigured his jaw as it would have been before he'd started losing his teeth. Schwartz studied Washington's clothing, which was form-fitting according to the fashion of the day, giving a good approximation of his dimensions.
The digital image of Washington at 19 shows him with a square jaw and well-shaped biceps. That image is being formed into a foam figure, and eventually the head and hands will be recast into clay and then wax, and the figure will be given eyes, hair and clothes. (Though the figure is being created nude, there are certain parts that are not being, shall we say, reimagined.)
The figure of Washington at 45 is a touch more thickset. He was at Valley Forge then. At 57 he is being sworn in, and Schwartz says he is still trying to decide whether the final version of Washington will have his lips closed or parted slightly, about to speak.
But there is no doubt that the youngest version of Washington will be the most fascinating to those who grew up with an ossified myth of our nation's first president, pieced together from legends of chopped cherry trees and tossed silver dollars and that dull portrait of him on the dollar bill, with his beaklike nose, his heavy-lidded eyes and thin lips set in a stern line.
Since the 19th century, says Edward G. Lengel, a George Washington historian, the Founding Father "has become more and more a cardboard figure." In real life, he was athletic and ambitious and, as a young guy, "kind of a ladies' man."
Oh, to be young and stylish in the 1750s!