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



Let’s Ban President’s Day by The Elephant's Child

There was a time when American schoolchildren celebrated two birthdays in February, Lincoln’s birthday on February 12, and  George Washington’s birthday on February 22. They cut log cabins out of construction paper for Abraham Lincoln, and usually an axe and a cherry tree for George Washington which left the kiddies with a rather warped vision of why the two birthdays were important.

So to clarify this historical misinformation, starting in 1971, we celebrated the birthday of the father of our country on the third Monday of February rather than his birthday, so that working people could have a three-day weekend, and since Lincoln’s birthday is also in February, added him to the weekend,  which is celebrated by a golf trip by our current president, a ski-vacation by his wife, and sales at most retail stores.

The cutting down the cherry tree story is apocryphal. George Washington did not want to be president after the long years of war, he wanted to retire to his farm, but the people wanted him, and he strove mightily to be worthy of their choice. He was very conscious that he was setting an example for future presidents, and conscious that the war just ended was a revolt against a monarchy and its overreaching taxes and limits on American liberty. Many were prepared to make Washington a king, but he resisted the pomp and  settled for plain, much to his credit. His restraint and moral stature did much to set the nation on its future path.

Abraham Lincoln’s statesmanship in saving the Union is the greatest challenge faced by a president. And it is a truly American story of a self-made man, indeed rising from a log cabin the highest office of the land and presiding over the bloodiest war in our history, emancipating the slaves and assassination. A tragic war and a tragic president whose intellect and character set an example for the ages and helped to reaffirm America as a free and self-governing nation.

We really need to set aside the two birthdays as a time to learn about our two greatest presidents. Let’s cancel “President’s Day.” There are things more important than three-day weekends.




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