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CW Journal : Summer 2005 : Taking the Measure of Washington... Once More

Taking the Measure of Washington... Once More

by Michael J. Lombardi


Photo by Dave Doody.

a mask made from Houdon's clay bust of Washington
Mount Vernon is using laser scans of a mask

Mount Vernon is using laser scans of a mask made from Houdon's clay bust of Washington, above, to re-create the physical Washington. Photo by Dave Doody.

laser scan

The laser scan appears on a laptop screen. Photo by Dave Doody.

Linda Baumgarten

Linda Baumgarten is gauging Washington's size by his clothes. Photo by Dave Doody.

James C. Rees

Mount Vernon

James C. Rees, above, executive director of Mount Vernon wants people to see the "real George Washington" at several ages. Photos by Dave Doody.

The Romanelli statue of a young George

The Romanelli statue of a young George with hatchet is pure fiction. Photo courtesy Unico League, Philadelphia

Anshuman Razdan of PRISM, left, and forensic athropologist Jeffrey Schwartz

Anshuman Razdan of PRISM, left, and forensic athropologist Jeffrey Schwartz with the only complete set of Washington's dentures. Photo by Dave Doody.

ean Ferris's 1920 Call of the Sea, 1747

There are no portraits of Washington as a young man. Jean Ferris's 1920 Call of the Sea, 1747, is his conceit of Washington at fourteen or fifteen, with his mother trying to keep him at home. Photo courtesy Virginia Historical Society

In the silence of the rotunda of Virginia's Richmond Capitol, someone whispered, "Ready." A shaft of red laser light darted across the vaulted chamber and fell on the marbled countenance of General George Washington, playing over the surface, exploring its contours, tracing its features, taking the measure of the man. A team of technicians, balanced on a makeshift wooden platform above the time-worn tiles of the black-and-white floor, looked first into his eyes ...and then into a computer monitor as the beam, ten centimeters vertical, reduced the great man's visage to a stream of data, one point at a time. From the numbers, the PC began to translate a statue regarded as Washington's most faithful likeness into a digital three-dimensional model intended to make a man two centuries dead come again to life in a project to help us see the "real" Washington.

But haven't we already seen as much of Washington as there is of him to see? He's on our dollar bill, and our quarter. That painting of him with the troops crossing the Delaware may be as unreliable as the portrayals of him chopping down a cherry tree or tossing a coin across the Potomac, but they are true to the image of a man whose name graces our nation's capital, its granite obelisk, and the forty-second state of the union. Beyond them, there are scores of contemporary portraits and depictions. George Washington is an American icon.

That is the problem, a problem people responsible for Washington's home, Mount Vernon, set out to solve when they began planning a new museum and visitor's center.

James C. Rees, Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens executive director, said, "Four or five years ago, when we started making plans for what the theme would be for our new facilities, we decided more than anything else it was a search for the real George Washington. We've done a lot of surveys, and focus groups, and they all told us that people have in their mind one image, and one image only, of George Washington, and that is the Gilbert Stuart portrait, the one used on the dollar bill. And when you push people to describe him, they think of him as elderly, as stiff, as staid. Some people say he looks lumpy. Some actually say he's great, but he's boring.

"If you knew Washington like we know him at Mount Vernon, you'd know that's far, far from the truth. He was by far and away the most robust, the most athletic, the most outdoorsy, the most adventurous, of all the founding fathers. He was the man of action of the eighteenth century. And so we decided that the theme was 'the real George Washington.' Where we had to start was trying to show people as best we could what the real Washington looked like."

Not just when he posed for artists later in life, but when he was a dashing frontiersman and explorer. How did he look to the men at Valley Forge? To the people at his first inaugural? Mount Vernon wanted somehow to combine the descriptions of Washington's appearance, evidence from artifacts, and add the best of the paintings and statues to come up with the most realistic image possible. Then they wanted to melt the years from his face and body to show him at nineteen.

Rees said, "I was watching the Today show, and they had a scientist on who said they could tell what Jesus looked like from the imprint on the Shroud of Turin. I said to myself, 'If they could do that with Jesus, we've got so much more on George Washington. Couldn't we do a very scientific, information driven study of Washington's appearance, particularly to see if we could work our way down to what he looked like as a young person?' There were no paintings whatsoever of George Washington as a young man. So at that point we got the very best people we possibly could."

Among them were Mount Vernon historians who began digging into the records to create a database of descriptions of Washington, and his clothes. Jeffrey Schwartz, an expert in forensic reconstruction, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, joined them. He was already thinking about how a young Washington looked. Point State Park in Pittsburgh had asked him to help portray Washington as a junior officer in the French and Indian War.

"I began to think about how this might be possible," he said. "I was told from the beginning that I would not have access to Washington's bones, which for me would have been the place to begin. I had to think about artistic representations."

In 1784, the Virginia General Assembly commissioned a statue, "a monument of affection and gratitude," to honor Washington. Thomas Jefferson, one of America's ambassadors in Paris, recommended French court sculptor Jean- Antoine Houdon.

The preeminent sculptor of the time, Houdon put off a sitting with Catherine the Great of Russia to travel to the United States. He reached Mount Vernon in the autumn of 1785, and stayed three weeks with the fifty-three-year-old, recently retired general—soon to be president.

Houdon modeled a clay bust of Washington, still on display at Mount Vernon. The artist also cast a life mask. He covered the general's face in plaster, the subject breathing through straws. Houdon removed the hardened plaster, and used it to cast an impression of Washington's face. That mask is at the Morgan Library in New York City.

In 1796, Houdon delivered a life-size statue of Washington to Richmond, which had succeeded Williamsburg as Virginia's capital in 1780. Many of Washington's friends and contemporaries said it was a perfect likeness.

Schwartz was intrigued with using advanced digital imaging to study the similarities and differences among the Houdon works, and compare them with descriptions, as well as paintings and Washington artifacts. He called on Anshuman Razdan and the PRISM research center—the Partnership for Research in Spatial Modeling—at Arizona State University to join the team. PRISM would scan the materials to create a computer image from the data.

That brings us back to the laser tickling Washington's face. The beam was focused on Houdon's statue. Reflections generated points of digital reference, an average of 1,500 per square inch, creating an overlapping, ordered set of points that are to be transformed into a computer image. The team also scanned the bust at Mount Vernon, the life mask, and other artifacts.

Razdan said, "We were ultracautious in collecting data over and over again because in its own way it was, and will remain, a sort of historic moment, because these things don't get scanned every day, and probably won't get scanned again for another fifty or one hundred years, unless somebody comes up with a new technique."

PRISM plans to superimpose the images, and compare them point by point. Where they overlap, the team is to enter points for the computer model. Where they differ, the team will turn to the life mask ...sometimes.

A problem with the life mask, Razdan said, "is that it only goes to the hairline, so I don't have the whole head. It's asymmetrical, in terms of how far down on the sides it goes...It's further down on the right side than on the left side. The eyes were covered...

"Washington also had straws in his nostrils, and if you look at the underside of his nose—and it was not very anatomically convincing—that's when I have to rely on portraits using 2D, 3D information.

"How many times do the eyes in the portraits, no matter who painted them, match up? Do they match up with the bust? So if I have five eyes, and get four hits, I'll go with the common eye shape, or lid shape, or nostril shape, or double-chin-edness, or puffiness of the face, or earlobes."

That meant looking at Washington portraits in which face and body vary wildly. Heroic eighteenth-century figures were romanticized, and sometimes given a belly to denote prosperity. Washington was the most heroic figure. Mount Vernon had to determine which portraits came closest to reality, and how Washington's body was really shaped.

The research team recruited more help.

Mount Vernon education project manager Elizabeth Maurer said, "We have a clothing expert, Linda Baumgarten of Colonial Williamsburg. We've also brought in a group of advisors to help. We have the National Portrait Gallery. We have the papers of George Washington. We have the Fairfax County Police Department and their forensic sketch artist. And we have the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, who do aging, and now they're also doing reverse aging."

They chose only Washington portraits painted from life. The paintings, including Gilbert Stuart's, differ from each other. The works of Charles Willson Peale were colored by his long-time friendship with the general. Peale and his son Rembrandt Peale painted Washington at the same time. The senior Peale's work was more romantic and forgiving. Determining what Washington looked like is no easy matter.

Neither is determining his physique. Baumgarten, curator of textiles and costumes at Colonial Williamsburg, has been looking at clothing worn by Washington. On the theory that you cannot be bigger than your clothes, Baumgarten has studied suits, breeches, and waistcoats. They were consistent.

She determined Washington's suit size, but that only gets you so far: "It looks like, given his measurements, his chest measurements and sleeve length, he would wear a modern forty to forty-two long. But a modern suit is shaped differently.

"His shoulders are very much narrower and more sloping than modern men's shoulders. He would have been wearing stays as a child, just as every person of his social level, which has the result of pushing the shoulders back, pushing them down which gives you a very flat back. The modern back is curved in sort of a natural posture.... So even though he has those measurements, his shoulders and arms were much slimmer."

She intends to create a pattern from the clothes Washington wore at his second inaugural. From that a muslin suit is to be made. She'll see whether the suit fits the model made from the digital images of the Houdon statue and other sources.

When the measurements are in, artists are to finish the computer image. Forensics used to age photos of missing children are to be employed to age Washington to when he was sworn in as president, four years after Houdon's visit.

Bigger challenges are de-aging Washington to the Valley Forge winter of 1777, and to 1751, when he was a nineteen-year-old surveyor. Schwartz and the PRISM team are developing a computer program to account for the changes aging brings, and to erase them. Life-size images in three poses are to be milled from high density Styrofoam, based on computer models. Eyes, hair, and skin are to be added to bring the figures to life.

Mount Vernon hopes they will be the most lifelike images of Washington made. Visitors to Mount Vernon's Donald W. Reynolds Education Center and Museum, which is to open in the autumn of 2006, are to be greeted by a vibrant, youthful Washington surveying the western limits of Virginia. They will see the commander of the American army at Valley Forge, and they will see the leader called from his farm to serve the Republic as its first president.

Will the realism make a difference?

Rees said, "We want people to believe that everything they experience in these new facilities is true, is right, is correct. What you see when you go through all these romantic, stilted, nineteenth-century depictions of Washington ...
you get a very sanitized feeling about the eighteenth century...

"We're missing the realism that photography brings to every kind of exhibit possible. If you don't have the photography, I think you have try to do the next best thing, and I think what we're doing is to use as much science as we can to make the best guesstimate by far that's ever been made."

Rees hopes the realism will allow people to get past the icon, and learn more about the man from Mount Vernon. He said, "If you can walk up to a lifelike model of George Washington, we think it will make him more approachable.

"Our goal is to bring him down off the pedestal and to show him as a true human being, with flaws, with faults, but not to trivialize him. That's the hardest part of it, to make him approachable and real to people without trivializing what he

Extra Images

Laptop showing George Washington's dentures

Lasers measure the dentures, and adjustments are made for how the loss of his teeth affected the natural line of Washington’s jaw and distorted his features.

Statue of George Washington

Statue of George Washington astride horse by sculptor Thomas Crawford stands on the Capitol grounds northwest of the Capitol building in Richmond, Virginia. This image of Washington shows a more robust, youthful, energetic man than we are accustomed to seeing on the dollar bill and in portraits.

Portrait of George Washington

Gilbert Stuart painted this oil on canvas portrait of George Washington now in the Colonial Williamsburg collection.

Lifemask of George Washington

French court sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon cast a life mask of General Washington.

Photos courtesy of Mount Vernon; Life mask, The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York

Lifemask of George Washington

Washington breathed through straws while his face was covered in plaster.

Photos courtesy of Mount Vernon; Life mask, The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York

Lifemask of George Washington

The finished mask of George Washington reveals a handsome profile.

Photos courtesy of Mount Vernon; Life mask, The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York

Suggestions for further reading:

For updates on the imaging project and general information about Mount Vernon and George Washington:

For information about the Spatial Imaging projects under way at Arizona State University and newspaper articles about the project:

For information about the Houdon statue in Richmond:

For access to the writings and papers of George Washington:

For access to the Library of Congress Washington papers:

Michael Lombardi is a Williamsburg video and film producer, and director. He contributed to the autumn 2005 journal an article about Jamestown settler Captain John Martin.