The early part of the book is filled with examples of mismatching Washington portraiture in beautiful, full color images. And again, no two are alike, including two that were painted on the same day—during the same sitting—by father and son. Even the iconic image of Washington on the dollar bill is suspect. Washington sat for painter Gilbert Stuart on an “off day” for the portrait. And the President had new dentures that made his lips bulge out. On top of that, the portrait on the bill is actually a mirror image of the original (a product of the engraving process).
Throughout the rest of the book, McClaffery follows the contemporary leadership at Mt. Vernon as it tries to figure out what George Washington really looked like and develops three life-sized recreations of the man (at ages 19, 45, and 57). The leadership compiles portraits—none of which were painted before he was forty—and written descriptions of the president, and forms a team, which includes a sculptor and a forensic anthropologist.
The Many Faces of George Washington:
Remaking a Presidential Icon
by Carla Killough McClafferty
Carolrhoda Book, 2011
One of the team’s biggest breaks was the work of Jean-Antoine Houdon, a French sculptor who was commissioned to make a life-sized statue of Washington late in the 18th century. (Some wanted to make a larger than life sculpture of the man, but at over six-feet in height, Washington himself said life-sized would be big enough.) Fortunately, Houdon insisted on doing the sculpture in person (not just from a portrait) so he traveled the Atlantic and lived at Mt. Vernon for several weeks, drawing Washington, getting to know him, taking precise measurements, and casting the President’s face! The original cast has been lost, but the life mask and bust that he made from it survive.
From the bust and the mask, McClaffery explains how researchers used sophisticated scanning technology to create detailed 3D imaging of Washington’s face. She discusses how his appearance changed as he aged (especially his mouth and jaw due to his severe tooth-loss) and how sculptors considered how bone and skin and muscle affect appearance and change over time. She talks about Washington’s posture—a product of his grooming as a gentleman in upper class society—and his clothing, which was recreated for these figures according to styles he would have worn, right down to the type of fabrics used.
You can see how the President’s life story is so intimately tied to his appearance (and the recreation of it).
And as McClaffery recounts the pain-staking detail that went into the creation of each model of Washington at 19 (as a young surveyer), 45 (as a general in the revloution), and 57 (as the first President), her story of the man unfolds. I worried, at first, that it would be a dry recap of his life—like many other histories and biographies I’ve read of Washington. But her portrait really does put a heart to the face. She recounts his struggles, desires, profound sense of duty and obligation to his country, sophistication and class, and warmth and humor.
A particular scene that sticks out to me is one in which he addresses congress, officially giving up his role as commander-in-chief following the end of the war. He felt he was a poor public speaker so he wrote out his remarks, and his hand shook as he held the paper and made his speech. Apparently there were few dry eyes in the chamber when he was finished.
The final chapter of the book underscores the interdisciplinary involvement in this project: anthropology, science, technology, art history, and textiles. Artists, scholars, tailors, taxidermists, and craftspeople, who demonstrate “the study of human history is not confined to research libraries or archaeological digs” (107).
And James C. Reese, Mount Vernon president, says that people who visit the historic site don’t really know much about him. They might respect the President, but they feel no connection to him. Reese says that changes by the time they leave: “They really feel good about Washington, and that makes them feel good about America” (108).
Ultimately, McClafferty’s book makes us think about how our own physical characteristics, clothing expressions, posture, etc. affect what we think, how we act, who we are. And vice versa.
And by the end of the book, after we see all three of the Washington re-creations now on display at Mt. Vernon, we feel that a man whose image was once obscured by history has been made “flesh and bone” again through modern technology and old-fashioned story-telling. Washington is made accessible and relevant.
Excellent read! Recommended for ages 9-12.