George Washington looks out on America from textbooks, dollar bills, gift shop kitsch and the side of Mount Rushmore. Yet historians at Washington's Mount Vernon home are convinced that no one knows what he really looked like.
Photography was decades away when Washington died in 1799. Those who painted portraits of the first president often took license with their subject or painted from another portrait, said James Rees, the executive director at Mount Vernon. Most busts and statues of Washington were based on those paintings.
"You start getting degrees of separation," Rees said.
The Mount Vernon staff thinks there's a way to remedy that.
This summer, a bright red laser will glide, centimeter by centimeter, across the white marble of a 216-year-old Washington statue that resides in the rotunda of the Virginia State Capitol. For four days, the laser will generate a computerized map of what historians believe is the most accurate representation of the man himself.
The computer data will then be combined with reams of historical research and measurements of his clothes, boots, eyeglasses and dentures to create three lifelike, Madame Tussaud's-style models that will serve as the centerpiece of Mount Vernon's new museum and visitors center.
When complete, the exhibit will display a 19-year-old George Washington as a frontiersman, a 45-year-old commander of the Continental Army and a 57-year-old president at his inauguration.
"We decided we would try to unite the fields of science and art and historical research," said James Rees, the executive director at Mount Vernon. "Our goal is to show people the real George Washington. In order to do that, we have to start by showing what he really looked like."
That's where Virginia's statue will provide some help, officials at Mount Vernon believe.
French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon spent several weeks with Washington at Mount Vernon in 1785, when Washington was 53, and became familiar with his movements and gestures -- how he turned his head, how he frowned. The artist is believed to have made a plaster mold of Washington's head and taken precise measurements of his body parts. The life-size statue was shipped from France to Virginia in 1796.
"This is considered to be the source to go to," said Jeffrey Schwartz, a professor of physical anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh, who is leading the team attempting to reconstruct Washington's image without access to his bones. Officials at Mount Vernon did not want to disturb his burial site there.
Schwartz said a group of University of Arizona researchers will use the same laser they used to scan Michelangelo's "David" statue to digitize Washington. When they're done, Schwartz will be able to use computers to adjust the three-dimensional model according to his other research.
For example, he said, Washington had smallpox as a teenager, a disease that almost certainly left pockmarks on his face.
"Those marks were probably more pronounced as he got older," Schwartz said. "We will try to make him look like a real person, and not just like an artificial individual."
Schwartz said a key challenge will be creating an accurate representation of Washington's mouth, which was distorted by his need to wear dentures later in life. Schwartz said the thin, pursed lips in many portraits are likely the result of Washington's efforts to hold in the dentures.
The new models of Washington will attempt to account for those realities for generations of visitors to Mount Vernon.
Even so, Schwartz said Americans will recognize the new version of the country's father.
"Whichever image you embrace, it's not going to look terribly different," he said. "His ability to command respect clearly had something to do with being a charismatic and even commanding figure. That's not going to get stripped away."
Lawmakers in Virginia last week gave their approval for the scanning of their statue.
They said the computerized data will provide a backup should the statue ever be destroyed. A replica could be created from the precise computer model.
And curators at the Library of Virginia, which oversees the statue, said there are other benefits, too. Using the computer data, the state could produce miniature versions of the statue to be sold in the capitol gift shop, they said.
Would that be sacrilege?
Not at all, Rees said.
"If they are well done, just the opposite," he said. "The more good-quality portraits and statues and busts we can put out there, the better."