American Elephants


The Indispensible Man by The Elephant's Child

The George Washington that most of us see most often is the engraving after the Gilbert Stuart portrait on the one dollar bill.  Reproductions of the Gilbert Stuart portrait and a portrait of Abraham Lincoln used to hang on the front wall of every elementary classroom, with an American flag standing in the corner. But then we celebrated separate birthdays, and didn’t lump them together into 3-day weekends in which no one remembers any president at all.

The portrait above, and the portrait in the header were painted by Charles Wilson Peale, who I believe to be the most skilled portraitist of his day. He painted 6 major portraits of Washington from life, and nearly 60 others based on those life portraits. If you look closely at those and at the life mask below by Jean Antoine Houdon, they are clearly representations of the same man. In an age when there were no cameras, portraits were the only way people who could not see the subject in person had of knowing what they looked like. Only a few of the portrait artists were skilled, and many were no more than sign painters — and if they got the hair and the costume more or less right, it was the best they had.

We all know, I think, that George Washington had dreadful false teeth.  A terrible pity, both for the President — because they must have been instruments of torture in his mouth — and because they distract our attention from far more important things about the man. Certainly Washington must have had access to the very best dentists of the day. By 1789, he had only one of his own teeth left.  The teeth were horrible-looking contraptions made of substances like hippopotamus ivory, hinged at the back and operated with springs. He complained that they distorted his lips, and they must have distorted his appearance as well.

Gilbert Stuart was the most celebrated of portraitists.  He trained in London, and was thought to be a potential successor to the famed Sir Joshua Reynolds.  However Stuart was extravagant and fled in debt from London. He turned up in Philadelphia during 1795 , hoping to pay off his creditors by creating a multitude of portraits of the world’s greatest man. Washington sat to him for three separate portraits, and Stuart made hundreds of copies. Take a minute to get out a dollar bill, and recognize the Gilbert Stuart image from which the engraving was made.  It is a cruel portrait.

According to James Thomas Flexner’s Washington: The Indispensable Man, Washington and Stuart did not get on.  The portraitist usually kept his sitters amused and their faces alive by a flood of showy and outrageous talk. Washington always felt uneasy at having to remain still and being stared at and was put out rather than being amused.

Stuart, who felt that “artists were fundamentally superior to all other men including Presidents, resented Washington’s formality.  He could not forget what had resulted when, in trying to unstiffen the hero, he had gone to the length of saying, “Now, sir, you must let me forget that you are General Washington and I am Stuart the Painter.  Washington replied (as it seemed to him politely), Mr. Stuart need never feel the need for forgetting who he is and who General Washington is.”

Stuart emphasized, as no other portraitist did, the distortions of Washington’s mouth.  Flexner suggests that since Stuart was known to have angrily used General Knox’s portrait as the door of his pigsty that perhaps the harm he did to Washington’s historical image was somewhat deliberate.

This life mask by Jean Antoine Houdon gives us more clues as to what Washington actually looked like.  He was tall, about 6’2″, and most verbal descriptions mention his ‘roman’ nose, so it was perhaps a little prominent. This is not the face of the Stuart portrait, but looks more probable, and it is close to the Peale portraits.

Washington was an outdoorsman who spent much of his life in the saddle, and his complexion would have reflected that — more wrinkles, more weathered.  They didn’t have sunglasses and baseball hats with a brim to keep the sun out of the eyes,  lots of squinting.  The portrait above seems to match the life mask fairly well.  A far cry from the disagreeable Gilbert Stuart portrait.

I’m going a bit out on a limb here, but I spent some years in art school attempting to capture likenesses, and the smallest errors in size and distance relationships can lose a likeness completely.  Also, people see likenesses differently. Some will insist that two siblings look just alike while others will see no resemblance between the same two.  I have no real explanation for that.

I suspect that Gilbert Stuart had such a reputation as a great portraitist, undoubtedly aided by his own self description,  that perhaps people were apt to accept his work as the “right” one.  Portraits are an odd matter. One tries to capture a mobile. alive face that changes its expression constantly and represent it on a flat surface.  If you have ever had photographer’s proofs of pictures of you to choose from, that will explain the problem.  They’re all you, but you’ll like some much better than others.

Here are “reconstructions” done by a forensic reconstructionist of Washington at his inauguration, as a general, and at around the age of 19.  They are startling in their realism. I suspect (nit-picky as I am) that the face is too free of wrinkles, and too pinky-white, and not rawboned enough.  (I said I was being picky)  But they give you a vastly different impression of the man.  Haul out a dollar bill and compare.  Stuart played a cruel joke on Washington.

Washington didn’t know much about being a general when he was appointed by Congress to lead the American armies, but he was the best we had, and he did fine.  His men loved him, and he gradually taught them to be soldiers.  He was elected unanimously to be President when he wanted nothing more than to return to Mt.Vernon and retire from public life. The people idolized him.  He could have been a king or an emperor, or like some — a dictator for life.  But it was he, with his sterling character, who set the nation on the right path.  He was consummately aware that he was setting a path for those who were to follow him. He had a horrible temper, and mostly kept it under firm control.  Any of his deeds alone would have made him famous, but in twenty-four years he led our armies, won the war,  led the country, shaped a constitution, set a nation on its path and then went on home.

ADDENDUM: I especially recommend Richard Brookhiser’s Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington.  It is not a life history, but a moral biography, only 199 pages.  It’s a rewarding book. This year there is a new biography by noted biographer Ron Chernow: Washington; A LifeI have not read it yet, but the reviews are excellent. You can read the Amazon review at the link. Washington is such a towering figure in our history, it’s important to try to understand the real man a little more. This piece is re-posted and revised from last year.

 

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4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Is the portrait at the top of the page by Gilbert Stuart?

Washington was, indeed, a towering figure in our nation’s history. It is hard to imagine anybody else who could have fulfilled that role so supremely, and so unselfishly.

I do think you’re being a bit picky. OK, the hair cut in the portrait on the dollar bill is rather effeminate, and Washington’s mouth does not make one warm to him. But otherwise, how many people do you know who have anything bad to say about the man? He probably enjoys a more universally positive rating than any other American in history, save perhaps Benjamin Franklin, Babe Ruth, and Louis Armstrong.

Comment by Subsidy Eye

No. The portrait at the top of the page and the portrait in the gold frame are both by Charles Wilson Peale. Peale painted about 60 portraits of Washington, but only 6 where Washington posed for him. The others were copies. Portraits of Washington, as you can imagine, were very much in demand, and that’s how artists made their livings. You can go to Google images and enter Gilbert Stuart portrait of GW, and see dozens. I hope you clicked on the link to the forensic reconstruction. That’s pretty amazing. probably a good likeness, except missing the weathered skin and wrinkles that any man of that age would have. Way too pinky-white.Getting a good likeness is hard, even for excellent artists, and some just have a special ability. You can trust the life mask. I’ve seen photos of that from other angles. Peale’s sons were all artists too, Rembrandt Peale was especially good.

Do not assume that in criticizing the Stuart portrait, I am criticizing Washington. I’m just interested in the closest likeness. I spent some years in art school, and I’m not good at getting a likeness myself, but I can recognize the skill in others.

Comment by The Elephant's Child

I appreciate the great article on President Washington

Comment by hey_sherm

Thanks. I’m never sure that the technical discussion of what he really looked like is interesting to anybody but me.

Comment by The Elephant's Child




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