FACE VALUE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Brooklyn, N.Y. -- In an airy studio not far from the spot where his Continental Army was nearly crushed, George Washington is being reborn in plaster and wax.

Artists, working with digital images created by a forensic anthropologist, are putting finishing touches on wax sculptures so realistic they should shatter stereotypes when displayed at Mount Vernon this year.

"I think people are going to be shocked, really shocked by what they see," James C. Rees, executive director of Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens in Virginia, said during a recent visit to the studio where the wax figures are being hand-painted.

Officials at Mount Vernon are spending $95 million in donated funds on new exhibits that will include figures of Washington at three stages in his life: an ambitious 19-year-old surveyor, a weary 45-year-old field commander and a deep-thinking, 57-year-old president being sworn into office.

They are intended to bring Washington's image to life, creating a more vivid portrayal than the stiff Gilbert Stuart icon on the dollar bill. They will be included in new buildings that will add five times the exhibition space at Mount Vernon. More than half of the new space will be underground to minimize disruption of the pastoral setting. The opening has been set for Oct. 27.

"The whole thing is about searching for the real George Washington," Rees said. "The dollar bill image has become such an icon, and it just doesn't have human life attached to it."

The figures being sculpted at StudioEIS in Brooklyn are a blend of science and art -- a result of digital images created by Jeffrey Schwartz, a University of Pittsburgh scientist. The forensic anthropologist spent four years analyzing the details of Washington's portraits, spectacles, dentures and other artifacts in search of the real George.

Schwartz had a lot to work with. As part of his investigation, he came to Baltimore last year to make laser scans that provided fine-tuned measurements of the set of Washington's dentures displayed at the National Museum of Dentistry. (There are four known sets.)

He also examined dozens of paintings. Washington sat for 25 painters, including Charles Willson Peale, his son Rembrandt Peale and John Trumbull. Stuart did more than 65 portraits of Washington, including three based on personal observations made during sittings.

Choosing a single portrait as the most accurate portrayal of Washington would be impossible, said Ellen Miles, curator of painting and sculpture at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and one of several experts whom Schwartz consulted as part of the project.

"The artists were uneven. They were uneven in training, they were uneven in their goals, they were uneven in their talent," Miles said. "And some of them had more time than others."

Schwartz, who published a report of the project in this month's Scientific American, said the most informative work of art was the bust of Washington by Jean Antoine Houdon during his two-week visit to Mount Vernon when Washington was 53. For the bust, the French artist created a life mask of Washington by applying plaster to his face during a sitting that required breathing through a straw.

But what Washington looked like as a young man has remained a mystery. The earliest portraits were done by Charles Willson Peale when Washington was 40 and 47.

As people age, cartilage in the ears and nose continue to grow, making noses and ears longer. Washington's were no exception.

But Washington, who had a penchant for cracking walnuts open with his teeth, began losing teeth in his 20s, and at 57 he had only one tooth left. His famous dental problems gradually changed the shape of his jaw -- reducing the distance from his nose to his chin as he aged.

"The whole front of his mouth got shorter as he got older," Schwartz said.

Schwartz created computerized three-dimensional digital images of the Houdon bust, scanned a healthy jaw about the size of Washington's and inserted it digitally into the scan of the bust. He then digitally added bone to the jaw working backward in time to re-create the face as it would have been structured with more teeth, first at age 45 and then at 19.

Schwartz discovered that Washington looked very different than the dollar bill image. From studying the portraits and applying what he knows about how people age, he concluded that Washington had a deep jaw as a young man and developed a bit of a double chin later.

No one is sure what Washington weighed, but the 6-foot-2 president was a thin man at 19. Washington is often described as strapping. But strapping in 1751 did not mean broad shoulders or thick muscles.

Among the upper crust in the 18th century, people admired a narrow shape, a style that encouraged men to hold their shoulders back in public in what was considered a dignified posture. As was the custom among status-conscious families at the time, Washington was corseted as a child to give his body more of a ballet dancer's shape, Schwartz said.

The result is most evident when Washington was 19, when he looked more like a sprinter than a weightlifter.

"He was a pretty skinny guy. Skinny arms, skinny legs," Schwartz said.

Schwartz agrees that the representations may shock some people but contends that what they see will be the best possible depiction of the real Washington.

"I get a chill every time I see them," he said.

To create the wax figures -- a $1 million effort -- Rees and others at Mount Vernon wanted to show the man at crucial times in his life. Visitors who pay the $13 admission ($6 for children) will see separate galleries that house a 19-year-old Washington filled with youthful energy, a weary and frigid field commander astride his horse at Valley Forge and a president being sworn into office, a detached look in his eyes.

"We want people to be able to walk up to these figures and say, 'Wow, that's George Washington,'" Rees said.

To create them, StudioEIS hired two British freelance artists with experience creating wax figures for Madame Tussauds in London: sculptor Stuart Williamson and Sue Day, a wig stylist and hair and body colorist.

Williamson has done personal sittings with Bette Midler, Tony Bennett, Shirley MacLaine and Morgan Freeman to sculpt them for Madame Tussauds. But he said one challenge was trying to capture Washington's smile for a separate bronze statue that will greet visitors when they enter the exhibit -- one that shows him in the company of his wife, Martha, and her grandchildren. None of Washington's portraits showed him smiling.

"At the time, it wouldn't be the proper thing to do," Williamson said.

So Williamson put a mirror to his face, thought about his twin 2-year-old sons and used his own smile as a model.

"I just kept thinking about them and all the funny little things they do," said Williamson.

Day selected oil-based paint to give color to the faces and hands. Oil also allows for more subtle, realist shades than other media. And besides, it's washable, she said.

How do you color the lips of a 19-year-old? With cadmium red, cobalt violet and two flesh tones, Day said.

As Washington aged in the other figures, Day has used more flesh tones and paler shades on the lips.

The veins, freckles and tiny, bursting capillaries in Washington's face at Valley Forge, which emphasize the cold, are all hand-painted. The frigid encampment came well after he nearly lost the Continental Army in New York.

Shades of blue give the first-time president the shadows under his eyes.

Washington's blue eyes are an acrylic resin. The sclera -- the white part of the eyes -- become more yellow and red-veined with age. The hand-painted irises, brightened with a coat of varnish, are small because Washington is in outdoor sunlight in all three scenes.

The bodies are made from foam and plaster and the skin is wax. Washington's auburn hair, which grayed with age, is human hair furnished by the same British firm that supplies Madame Tussauds.

Painting the hands -- age spots on the older Washington, dirt under the fingernails of the young surveyor -- takes about seven or eight hours for each figure.

Coloring each face takes another three days. Inserting the hairs one at a time requires another two to three days for each figure.

"It takes patience, but you get used to it," Day said as she brushed up the eyelashes of the 19-year-old.

The result are figures so lifelike they look as if they are ready to start talking. Williamson and Day realize millions of U.S. citizens will view the work and form lasting impressions from it about the father of their country.

"It's pretty cool," Day said.

Williamson and Day see nothing wrong with depicting a commander-in-chief who won independence by defeating their ancestors.

"We're not at war anymore," Williamson said.

dennis.obrien@baltsun.com

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