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 when I was growing up, with an American flag standing in the corner.

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.

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.

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 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 quite 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 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 the armies, 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. The portrait above and the one in the header are by Charles Wilson Peale.

Happy Valeninne’s Day! by American Elephant
February 14, 2011, 4:27 am
Filed under: Pop Culture | Tags: ,

Happy Valentines Day!

Being of the male of the species, I’ve never much understood the importance some place on the holiday. Let’s face it, Valentines Day is nothing more than a concoction of the greeting-card industry to promote the sales of schmaltzy valentines. And as a holiday, its kind or a rip-off — if even the most perfectly executed Valentine’s Day gesture doesn’t excuse one from being romantic the rest of the year, then, really, what’s the point?

That said, I should point out that Elephants are known to be very partial to chocolate truffles.

Happy New Year! by American Elephant
January 1, 2011, 9:03 am
Filed under: Pop Culture | Tags: , ,

From all us elephants to all of you, we thank you for being part of our herd, making our year so bright, and may God bless you and yours with an exceedingly happy, healthy, and very prosperous new year!

Snowbound by American Elephant
December 13, 2010, 8:36 pm
Filed under: Music | Tags: , ,

A beautiful soundtrack for those of you snowed-in back east and in the Midwest. Build a fire, or if you don’t have a fireplace, put one on your monitor, burrow down under your favorite blanket, and kick back and enjoy the gorgeous, sultry song stylings of the incomparable Sarah Vaughan as you watch the snow drift down. A nice steamy cup of creamy hot cocoa never hurts either.

Smashing Pumpkins… by American Elephant

…and other fun ways to dispose of your carved creations apres Halloween.

If you’ve been reading our blog long, or have caught our annual list of the 20 Best Halloween Movies Ever! you know I’m a big fan of Halloween. One of my favorite parts is the annual carving of the squash. Conversely,  one of the biggest let-downs of the holiday is going to all that time and effort to carve a jack-o-lantern masterpiece, only to throw them away, or unceremoniously toss them in the compost just a few days later before they start to rot and grow a thick coat of gray fur inside. There’s got to be a better way!

Problem solved:

The five coolest ways to get rid pumpkins after HalloweenContinue reading

Sing Along! by American Elephant
September 17, 2010, 3:45 pm
Filed under: Conservatism, The Constitution | Tags: ,

Happy Constitution Day!

(thanks to Gay Patriot for the reminder.)

Happy Valentines Day! by American Elephant
February 14, 2010, 9:58 pm
Filed under: Pop Culture | Tags: ,

Happy Valentines Day!

Being of the male of the species, I’ve never much understood the importance some place on the holiday. Let’s face it, Valentines Day is nothing more than a concoction of the greeting-card industry to promote the sales of schmaltzy valentines. And as a holiday, its kind or a rip-off — if even the most perfectly executed Valentine’s Day gesture doesn’t excuse one from being romantic the rest of the year, then, really, what’s the point?

That said, I should point out that Elephants are known to be very partial to chocolate truffles.

Six More Weeks of Winter by American Elephant
February 2, 2010, 10:13 am
Filed under: Politics | Tags:

Happy Groundhog’s Day!

Happy New Year! by American Elephant
January 1, 2010, 2:49 am
Filed under: Pop Culture | Tags: ,

One very good reason to stay home on New Year’s Eve…

A Sturgis woman had a blood-alcohol level of .708 percent, possibly a state record, when she was found earlier this month behind the wheel of a stolen vehicle parked on Interstate 90, according to Meade County State’s Attorney Jesse Sondreal.

A South Dakota Highway Patrol trooper discovered Marguerite Engle, 45, on Dec. 1 passed out behind the wheel of a delivery truck reported stolen in Rapid City.

Her blood-alcohol level was almost nine times South Dakota’s legal limit of .08 percent.

Checks with local and state labs where blood-alcohol levels are tested suggest Engle’s reading may be the highest ever recorded in South Dakota, Sondreal said.

Sondreal said a state chemist recalled a sample that tested .53, but nothing higher, in his more than 30 years on the job.

Dr. Robert Looyenga, who recently retired from the Rapid City Police Department’s forensic laboratory, told Sondreal that the highest blood-alcohol sample he tested measured .56 percent.

Sondreal’s research indicates that a blood-alcohol level of .40 is considered a lethal dose for about 50 percent of the population.

“Engle’s was almost double that,” Sondreal said.

After she was found, Engle was hospitalized and freed on bond.

She failed to appear in court on Dec. 15, but Sturgis police located her Monday evening in another stolen car sitting in a ditch along S.D. Highway 34 near Fort Meade.

Whatever you do for the holiday, be careful; there’s tons of Mad-Dog-Marguerite-Engels on the road.

And I hope the New Year brings you excellent health, lots of wealth and happiness, and conservative Republican majorities in both houses of congress with subpoena power!

Snow! by American Elephant
December 4, 2009, 9:29 am
Filed under: Movies, Music, Pop Culture | Tags: , , ,

The temperature reached down below freezing last night for the first time in our area. I caught a glimpse of my first Christmas tree headed home on the roof of a car. The skies were clear, but just the same, it quickly brings snow to mind whenever the mercury drops that low.

Everyone knows the song White Christmas, but you may not have heard this lesser known song from from the 1954 musical which that classic carol inspired.  Sung by Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen in close harmony, the song is simply called Snow! It originally had nothing to do with Christmas, but with the right lyrics and some sleigh bells, Irving Berlin turned it into the perfect tune for anyone anticipating the first snow of the season.

We had our first white Christmas in several years last year, and it was a doozy! Several feet of snow, atop a bed of ice, which in combination with the Seattle hills had most people stuck at home. I suspect we’ll get a blanket of snow again this year, but I hope not that much! What about you? Have you got snow yet? Think you’ll get any?

Happy Easter! by American Elephant
April 12, 2009, 10:03 pm
Filed under: Religion | Tags: ,

Easter thoughts by Renaissance Guy, and the Anchoress.

Big Hollywood proposed the five best films for Easter, while Captain Ed takes a poll.

Iraqis celebrate Easter via Michelle Malkin.

Easter for bunny-hating hunters (bunny lovers: consider yourselves warned), and child-hating bunnies.

And finally, for the political, rememberingEaster… in America… in betterdays.

Merry Christmas! by American Elephant
December 24, 2008, 2:05 pm
Filed under: History, Movies, Music, News, Religion | Tags: , ,

Joy to the World!

(video: The Nativity Story; Music: Josh Groban)


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