Taking a New Look at George Washington

The Chicago Tribune, 6 October 2004
By Charles Homans

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After a lifetime of seeing an older George Washington looking out sternly from the face of every dollar bill and quarter, it's difficult for most Americans to picture the founding father as a young man.

He was, of course.

The young Washington who surveyed Virginia's Shenandoah Valley and built forts along the state's western frontier had red hair and the lean build of a soldier rather than an elder statesman's paunch.

His skin bore traces of the smallpox he suffered in his youth.

"He would probably have had a little pudgier cheeks, because when you're young you have more fat in your cheeks, and his ears and nose would not have been quite as exaggerated," said Jeffrey Schwartz, a professor of anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh.

Schwartz would know. He's leading a team of anthropologists, computer scientists and sculptors that's wrestling with some questions posed by the directors of Mt. Vernon Estate and Gardens, Washington's former home in Virginia: What did George Washington look like when he was 19? When he was 45? 57?

3 views of Washington

Those questions will be answered--with the help of $500,000 from Mt. Vernon--in the form of three models of Washington at three stages of his life.

A 19-year-old Washington will be poised with the instruments he used as a surveyor, mapping the American frontier. A 45-year-old Gen. Washington will rally his troops at Valley Forge. And a 57-year-old President Washington will stand with his hand raised as he's sworn in as the only man ever to be elected unanimously to the nation's highest office.

Drawing on forensics research, state-of-the-art computer modeling and art history, among other things, the three Washingtons are to be the most anatomically and historically accurate representations ever made of the first president.

"A project of this magnitude, I don't know if it'll come around another time," said Anshuman Razdan, a professor of computer science at Arizona State University and the director of ASU's Partnership for Research in Spatial Modeling, or PRISM, a consortium of computer experts and artists charged with the technological detail work on the project. "It's quite an undertaking."

That's an understatement.

Schwartz and Razdan anticipate that the Washington project, which started in July, will take about two years.

The models' bodies will be shaped out of high-density foam by a computerized milling machine in California, and the heads will be produced from computer models at a studio in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Because Washington wasn't painted or sculpted before age 40--and because Mt. Vernon isn't allowing Schwartz to look at Washington's actual remains--figuring out what he looked like as a teenager requires no small amount of detective work.

"Since I learned I was not going to be able to access Washington's bones, I had to figure out how to deal with what secondary and tertiary information I had access to," said Schwartz, who as the forensic anthropologist in Allegheny County, Pa., is more accustomed to dealing with victims of crimes than people who appear on American currency.

Dentures and jawbones

At the moment, Schwartz is poring over physical relics such as Washington's dentures and the jawbones of other French and Indian War veterans in an effort to reconstruct Washington's youthful face, before early tooth loss transformed it into the stern visage of the "Athenaeum Head" painting by Gilbert Stuart that's immortalized on the dollar bill.

"The whole point of the project is to make Washington real and accessible," Schwartz said.

That's also the aim of an $85 million museum and education center that will open at Mt. Vernon in 2006.

The three statues will stand in a high-tech interactive facility designed to transport visitors into Washington's life, complete with simulations of everything from the snow at Valley Forge in 1777 to the roaring applause at Washington's 1789 inauguration in New York.

"I think the picture on the dollar bill pretty much tells the story of what people think Washington was really like," said James Rees, Mt. Vernon's executive director. "It shows Washington as an older man who looks a little bit sour."

A 3-D project

There's more to bringing out the young Washington than simply putting his teeth back in place, though.

Razdan and the PRISM team spent much of a recent week in the rotunda of the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond with a laser-scanning device, creating a three-dimensional computer model of a statue of Washington carved by the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon in the late 18th Century.

Houdon's is the only extant sculpture that was created with a living Washington as its model.

While Washington was living at Mt. Vernon in 1785, Houdon measured the 53-year-old general's limbs, studied his body movements and made a life mask, or plaster cast, of Washington's face from which he would work back in his studio in France.

The sculpture that arrived in Virginia 11 years later was a masterpiece, carved from the same Italian Carrera marble that Michelangelo favored.

PRISM is trying to figure out whether the statue is as anatomically accurate as it is majestic.

The team also has scanned the life mask and a terra-cotta bust that Houdon did as a study for the piece. None of those artifacts, though, shows quite the same Washington.

"After all, Houdon was an artist, and he took artistic license," Razdan said.

Linda Baumgarten, the curator for antique garments at Colonial Williamsburg, is trying to deduce what Washington's body looked like from the few pieces of his clothing that remain intact.

Britches and coat

Her job is a kind of reverse tailoring, building a body to fit Washington's britches and coat.

"In a sense, it's a little bit like building a mannequin for an antique garment" in a museum exhibition, Baumgarten said. "We've never had such an illustrious mannequin before, though."

The team searching for the real Washington expects that much of its evidence will be contradictory, and therein lies much of the project's formidable challenge.

"One of the things that we're confronting is that there seem to be no absolutes as to the true image of George," said Dan Collins, an ASU sculpture professor and co-director of PRISM. "Is the life mask the definitive image of George? Well, probably not. . . . It also doesn't correspond very neatly with the mythic portrait, the iconic portrait of George Washington. So somewhere in that mixture, we're going to find the true identity."

© 2004 Chicago Tribune


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