American Elephants


The Indispensable Man: A Search for the Real George Washington by The Elephant's Child

This portrait of George Washington is by Charles Wilson Peale.

 Be sure to click on the links to the forensic reconstructions, which is the whole point of this post: (A search for the real George Washington)

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 back 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, was painted by Charles Wilson Peale, who I believe to be the most skilled portraitist of his day. He painted six major portraits of Washington from life, and nearly 60 others based on those life portraits. People all over were hungry to know what their president looked like.  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. It’s a strong face.

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, and as a general. (There is another reconstruction of around the age of 19, but the picture is no longer available) 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 and nasty 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.

Here’s a Gilbert Stuart portrait. If the forensic reconstructions, the Houdon death mask, and the Peale portraits all agree, we can probably assume that Stuart was just mean.  Pity that Stuart’s portrait is the more commonly seen one. I’d just like people to remember the heroic general, not nasty Gilbert Stuart’s mean trick.

Gilbert_Stuart_Williamstown_Portrait_of_George_Washington



City vs. Country—The Same Old Story by The Elephant's Child

People who don’t pay a lot of attention to political news, and there are lots of them, often wonder about the real difference between parties. There are many who at least claim that they vote for the man, not the party. I ran across a good example in Politico Magazine. I had no idea that Politico had a magazine. Short piece by the editor, one Stephen Heuser, to introduce their “Cities Issue” — “One Nation, Divided by Density”

Pick a city in America, any city. Chances are it’s younger, more diverse and more educated than the countryside around it—and way, way more liberal. The resurgence of the city has been one of the most striking reversals in modern America, as the bleak streets of the 1970s have turned into magnets for a new kind of young, hyperconnected professional, and even wealthy retirees flocking back from their suburbs. It has also created a widening split in a country now wondering what “indivisible” is really supposed to mean.

If you were to pluck a person at random out of the fictional city on our cover, odds are overwhelming that you’d find a Hillary Clinton voter. (In real life, there are big cities—Boston, Washington, San Francisco—where not a single precinct went for Donald Trump.) If you toured the rural landscape below, you’d find nothing but Trump signs in front yards. Politics has become another symptom of a growing cultural gulf. Think pickup trucks vs. subway cars. Church vs. brunch. Diner coffee vs. single-origin beans roasted by a guy selling vinyl LPs. We are one nation, divided by density.

The new president exploited that divide with the genius of someone who understood cities from the inside and was willing to sell them out. It worked, but at what cost? Rural America needs cities to thrive. Cities depend on the people and land around them, more than they like to think. The modern city might feel like a kind of island in a global archipelago, a nucleus of prosperity and avocado toast, but urbanites can no longer afford the smug assumption that the future is theirs. You can smell the fires outside the walls.

Do read the whole thing, there are only 4 more short paragraphs.

It wasn’t just Hillary calling small town and rural America “Deplorables”— it’s what the Left believes. (We’re smart and you’re dumb.) You see it in the media constantly.  The Left does not understand human nature, doesn’t like it, and wants to fix it. They will fix it with other people’s money, giving alms to the poor, food stamps to the hungry, and sending all black children to college. It’s just socialism, as Margaret Thatcher said, “sooner or later, you run out of other people’s money.” So when they run out of money, they expect to have converted everyone to Democrat voters, by giving them stuff.

Smart people don’t have to be “educated” to be knowledgeable. Lots of people graduate from college and remain remarkably ignorant. Silicon Valley billionaires may be technologically brilliant with things cyber, and not very bright about the rest of the world. There are lots of people with degrees in rural America, and there are lots of  prosperous cities in flyover country.

Mr. Heuser goes on about city people and the “creative class”— Lefties like to think of themselves as “the creative class.” They either don’t notice, or don’t care about the wreckage they leave in their wake. In any case, if you are feeling annoyed by the Left, this is quite a splendid example of just why you find them so completely annoying.



Stop The Presses! The President Just Tweeted! by The Elephant's Child

Twitter first gained public attention only in 2006, and has grown in popularity. Those who cry “It’s not Presidential” when the president tweets, are ignoring the simple fact that Obama is the only other president who could possibly have tweeted. Twitter has been especially popular among celebrities, because big numbers of followers can warm celebrity hearts. Celebrities, as we all know, are famous for being known.

The thought initially was that Twitter could be sort of an early-warning signal of upcoming political trends, but that’s giving it far too much credit. Mostly, it seems to be a channel for insults and snide remarks. Those who can manage a truly cogent remark in such limited words are celebrated—most cannot. President Donald Trump’s tweets are the focus of far too much attention. I would bet that you know far more about President Trump’s most recent tweet striking back at a remarkably nasty broadcast by Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough, than you do about the accomplishments that the president is pushing through with members of his cabinet and through his own Executive Orders.

The fact that you know more about what he said about Mika’s facelift than you do about Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s efforts to find out whether all the regulations, taxes and subsidies that benefit “green energy” providers were harming the power industry and forcing the premature retirement of baseload power plants. This was a study, an effort to get some clear information, and predictably, the Solar Energy Industries of America and the Advanced Energy Economy, the New York Times and allies in Congress even went after the economist overseeing the study planning how to debunk it. That gives  you a clue about what the study will turn up, and how the media will address it.

What is a tweet—140 characters? I don’t tweet, so I’m not well informed. But that brief emanation from the White House was the focus of almost every journalist in the country.  Important things happening could go a  glimmering. Trump tweeted! Feminists shouted “objectifying women.” Republicans gasped, because Republicans don’t insult people directly, just behind closed doors so they can maintain their decorum.

Democrats are desperate to attack Trump in any way possible. They have no real policies to challenge what Trump is accomplishing and proposing, only defense of Obama’s failed programs. So Trump’s tweets are hugely welcome targets, and at just 140 characters—hardly challenging. They don’t even have to read any long pieces or do research—or even worry about being called “fake news.”

As far as being shocked by Trump’s tweets, you can find far worse in any comments column. Democrats are becoming notable for potty mouths. Language has dropped several rungs closer to the gutter. As far as “not presidential” we can recall LBJ holding conversations and meetings while sitting on the toilet.

There are far worse things that have gone on in the White House than some unmannerly tweets. There are far worse things and far more important things going on around the world, but harder for lazy journalists to write or speak about. It would require research and a knowledge of history and world affairs that these lightweights don’t seem to possess.




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