Jim Rees, executive director of George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens, blames the public’s perception of George Washington as a stiff, elderly leader on the portraits painted back in his day.
“Washington didn’t do all his work behind a desk. He was a man of action. We’ve got a very brave, almost swashbuckling kind of hero we can communicate with the public… if we can find a productive and successful way to do that,” Mr. Rees says.
Mount Vernon officials have a plan meant to do so.
The estate is working with a series of research groups across the country using computers, forensic anthropology and old-fashioned sleuthing to create as lifelike a presidential replica as ever has been attempted — four, in fact.
The project will yield four likenesses of Washington. The first will be an 8-foot-tall bust of the Revolutionary War hero. One statue will feature a 19-year-old Washington surveying the western frontier. Another positions a 45-year-old Washington astride a horse. The final Washington will be depicted standing on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City taking the presidential oath of office at age 57.
All four will be located in the new education center, expected to be completed by fall 2006. The project is expected to cost about $250,000.
The scientists won’t have access to Washington’s remains, which will be left undisturbed out of respect, says Emily Coleman, assistant director of marketing at Mount Vernon.
Instead, they will dig through a stack of materials ranging from his dentures to what Mount Vernon officials believe is his inaugural attire.
The project’s spark began three years ago, Mr. Rees says, from a story on NBC’s “The Today Show.”
The episode featured scientists extrapolating what Jesus looked like from smudges on the Shroud of Turin.
“We’ve got 100 times that amount of information [on George Washington],” he says. “Why can’t we figure out what this man looks like?”
Specialists from across the country are poring over the president’s eyeglasses, dentures, clothing and the various statues and paintings he sat for to complete the portrait.
A statue of Washington in the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, created by French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, stands as the most realistic depiction of the country’s first president, he says.
The artist is said to have used calipers to make exact measurements of his subject.
Ivan Schwartz, director of New York-based StudioEIS, which will create the finished clay figures, says the researchers will be digitally scanning “anything he laid his hands or teeth or glove on” to produce hundreds of thousands of tiny measurements.
Researchers will scan in all the respected portraits of Washington to compare and contrast their key components. Anomalies will be examined and discarded along the way.
“If you look at the imagery,” Mr. Schwartz says, “from one image of Washington to the next, they do vary from their point of view.”
To break the various ties, all the dates will be fed into computers to find the pertinent similarities. That will help the finished product look as reasonably like the real Washington as current methods will allow.
Mr. Schwartz says he typically compiles various facial “milestones” while creating his studio’s 3-D figures, like where the nose begins or the distance between the lower and upper eyelids.
“The difference here is they’re (the researchers) using sophisticated scanning equipment to take much finer measurements,” he says. “I might use 25 major milestones or markers within the head. They’ll literally take 150,000.”
Jeffrey Schwartz, professor of anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh, says even having a full skeleton to work from leaves considerable challenges for a project like this.
“There will always be estimations on certain parts of the reconstruction,” says Mr. Schwartz, who is no relation to Ivan Schwartz. “Not having [the skeleton] makes it more difficult. I’m going to have to use 30-some years of experience as a physical anthropologist to make decisions about what the most likely eye shape, shape of the ears, jaw line.”
His background tells him the Richmond bust of Washington, taken in his late 50s, reveals a jaw line ravaged by time and his poor dental health.
At the jaw line, “you see a curve under the flesh instead of an angular corner,” he says.
Using computers to fill in the many gaps, he says, takes patience.
“You find out some things aren’t as accurate as you’d like. It’s real sleuthing,” the anthropology professor says.
Some of the clues came from recollections of Washington recorded during his lifetime.
“He’s been described as being a very broad-hipped person,” he says, a quality which may be attributed to his reputable horsemanship.
Mount Vernon curator Carol Borchert Cadou says the project hired Linda Baumgarten, curator of textiles and costume at Colonial Williamsburg to extrapolate Washington’s dimensions from the clothes he once wore.
Mrs. Borchert Cadou says Mount Vernon has a number of clothing items the president wore, some of which remain in “an unaltered state.”
“They had always been in family hands and had a clear chain of ownership,” she says, adding about a dozen pieces fit that criteria.
Clothes in Washington’s time were hand-tailored, not grouped by sizes, so the material provides a fairly accurate summation of his measurements, she says.
Mount Vernon possesses a brown broadcloth suit, which Mrs. Borchert Cadou says she believes served as Washington’s inaugural attire, which is helping provide dimensional data.
Ivan Schwartz says his firm will receive a computer-generated foam model held together with a wire frame and then begin the final sculpture process.
“We’ll mold it, cast it and painstakingly attempt to make it as well as we can,” he says, a process that will include implanting real hair in the figures.
“When we start producing this real image, suddenly, Washington will stare back at us.”