George Washington Unmasked By Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Skinner Auctioneers.

What did Pres. George Washington actually look like?

No portraits of Washington exist before the age of 40 and Washington posed live for all those painted after the age of 40. Interestingly enough, many show a somewhat different-looking man.

So what did he actually look like?

For that historians turned to the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. People wanted to know what the 53-year-old Washington looked like and Houdon was considered one of the finest sculptors in Europe at the time recognized for his ability to capture the essence of his sitters.    

“Not only the present, but future generations will be curious to see your figure taken by such an artist.”
— David Humphreys. Wartime Aid

In 1785 the Virginia state legislature wanted to honor Washington for his Continental Army victory by erecting a statue of him in the Richmond state capitol building.  

Washington was uncomfortable being stared at and sized up but wrote to a friend he was getting used to it. Houdon arrived at Mount Vernon in October 1785. He walked up the long hill from Mt. Vernon’s wharf and knocked on the wooden front door late at night. It was already two hours past Washington’s bedtime but the artist was politely received.

Houdon and his assistants didn’t speak English and Washington didn’t speak French but the president hired an interpreter to solve the problem.

“Not only the present, but future generations will be curious to see your figure taken by such an artist,” David Humphreys, Washington’s wartime aid said.  

Over a two week period Houdon observed Washington in a variety of situations, took measurements and then made a plaster life mask of Washington’s face. The clay used for a preliminary bust probably came from the ground at Mount Vernon. 

As the artist slathered plaster over Washington’s face six-year-old step-granddaughter Nelly walked past the room, saw the president laid out on a large table covered to the chin with a sheet and was sure he died.  

“Quills were in the nostrils. I was very much alarmed until I was told that…would not injure him,” she said.  The quills allowed Washington to breathe while the plaster hardened. The end result was a replica of George Washington’s face, every line and every wrinkle. 

Houdon also took measurements of the president’s body to use in sculpting his torso. Most statues of the era were made larger than life but Washington asked the artist to sculpt his figure exactly as it was. 

Houdon worked on the white Italian Carrara marble sculpture for two years. It was ready before the new Virginia capitol building was complete and lived temporarily in the Louvre Museum in Paris. 

On May 14, 1796, the sculpture was placed in the rotunda of the Richmond, Virginia capitol where it stands today. The life mask, bust and statue have survived for over 220 years.      

Washington’s family said Houdon’s sculpture was the truest likeness of the man. Today the life mask resides in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City.

On Oct. 30, a selection of George Washington items went on the block at Skinner Auctioneers.  

George Washington

Lithographic Portrait; hand-colored; full-length; Hartford, Conn; Kelloggs & Thayer; circa 1846-1848; 9 ½ inches by 13 ½ inches; $308.

Steel Engraving; Washington Receiving a Salute on Field of Trenton; New York, published by John McClure; circa 1863; 27 inches by 34 ¼ inches; $1,968.

Autograph Endorsement; signed; June 1799; 6 inches by 7 ½ inches framed; $7,380.

Autograph Letter; signed; two sheets; April 20, 1773; 9 inches by 7 inches; $18,450.

Autograph Survey; signed; Augusta County, Va; single leaf; April 16, 1751;  11 ½ inches by 7 inches framed; $31,980.    


Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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