It took a transatlantic visit and a little flattery to encourage George Washington to sit for Jean-Antoine Houdon, one of the preeminent European sculptors of the 18th century.

As Thomas Jefferson described, Jean-Antoine Houdon possessed the “reputation of being the finest statuary in the world.” Well versed in capturing famous faces from the King Louis XV of France to Voltaire, Houdon was “enthusiastically fond of being the executor of this work,”[1] and needed to see the illustrious subject in person in the hopes of “forming the bust from life.”[2]

The chance of Washington crossing the Atlantic to see Monsieur Houdon for the express purpose of having a bust made was preposterous. Knowing their esteemed friend’s full calendar and impatience with matters that could be described as of little import, Jefferson and Franklin judiciously employed a little polite puffery to get the job done. Appealing to Washington’s penchant for fastidious record-keeping, they stressed that it was imperative to document his likeness for posterity.

After arriving at Mount Vernon on October 2, 1785, Houdon stayed for two weeks. Undeniably swept up into the rhythm of daily life on the estate, such immersion not only allowed the sculptor to study Washington’s facial features, but also to become acquainted with the nuanced shift in the General’s expression and mood, as well as the details of Washington’s choice of attire.

Making the Life Mask

Desiring the most accurate likeness possible, Houdon wished to create a “life mask” of the General. Washington’s diary entry from October 10, 1785, indicates that he was fascinated by the process, and thoroughly documented the materials and method by which the plaster was prepared that day.

In the servant’s hall adjacent to the Mansion, the General had laid down on a wooden table. His hair was pulled back, covered by a towel, while a large sheet protected his clothes. Oil was generously applied to his face, so that the hardened plaster of the mask would not adhere to his skin. Two large quills were placed inside each of the General’s nostrils to ensure he could breathe.[3] Young Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis, Washington’s step-granddaughter, looking for her grandpapa, happened upon his white-clad, still form, laid out on the table like a corpse. Immediately distressed, Nelly was rapidly comforted by those present that her grandfather was still indeed alive and well.[4]

Houdon's Terracotta Bust of Washington

After Houdon prepared the cast of Washington’s face, the mold was left to dry. The interior of the mask was then coated with oil, and wet plaster poured back into it. The original, negative mold, would be chipped away, leaving Washington’s exact, three-dimensional likeness.

From this study, Houdon would create the famed Washington terracotta bust and the nearly twenty other Washington busts attributed to him.[5] Hailed as the most authentic likeness of the General, the bust in the collection of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association is the original.

"I wish the object of your mission had been more worthy of the masterly genius of the first statuary in Europe; for thus you are represented to me." - Washington to Houdon, September 26, 1785

Primary Source: Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, Paris, December 10, 1784

The Executive of our State have remitted to Dr. Franklin and myself the care of having the statue made, which the Assembly directed as a mark of their gratitude to you. I was unwell when I received the letter and have not yet been able to confer with Dr. Franklin on the subject. I find that a Monsieur Houdon, of this place, possesses the reputation of being the finest statuary in the world. I sent for him and had some conversation with him on the subject. He thinks it cannot be perfectly done from a picture, and is so enthusiastically fond of being the executor of this work, that he offers to go to America for the purpose of forming your bust from the life, leaving all his business here in the meantime. He thinks that being there three weeks with you would suffice to make his model of plaister (sic), with which he will return here, and the work will employ him three years. If Dr. Franklin concurs with me, we shall send him over, not having the time to ask your permission and await your answer. I trust that, having given your Country so much of your time heretofore, you will add the short space which this operation will require, to enable them to transmit to posterity the form of the person whose actions will be delivered to them by history. Monsieur Houdon is at present engaged in making a statue of the King of France. A bust of Voltaire executed by him is said to be the finest in the world.

The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 8, 25 February–31 October 1785, ed. Julian P. Boyd. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953.

Primary Source: Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, Paris, July 10, 1785

Mr. Houdon would much sooner have had the honour of attending you but for a spell of sickness which long gave us to despair of his recovery and from which he is but recently recovered. He comes now for the purpose of lending the aid of his art to transmit you to posterity. He is without rivalship in it, being employed from all parts of Europe in whatever is capital. He has had a difficulty to withdraw himself from an order of the Empress of Russia, a difficulty however which arose from a desire to shew her respect, but which never gave him a moment’s hesitation about his present voyage which he considers as promising the brightest chapter of his history. I have spoke of him as an Artist only; but I can assure you also that, as a man, he is disinterested, generous, candid, and panting after glory: in every circumstance meriting your good opinion. He will have need to see you much while he shall have the honour of being with you, which you can the more freely admit as his eminence and merit gives him admission into genteel societies here. He will need an interpreter. I supposed you could procure some person from Alexandria who might be agreeable to yourself to perform this office. He brings with him a subordinate workman or two, who of course will associate with their own class only.

The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 8, 25 February–31 October 1785, ed. Julian P. Boyd. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953, pp. 279–281.

Primary Source: Benjamin Franklin to George Washington, Philadelphia, September 20, 1785

Dear Sir,

I am just arrived from a Country, where the Reputation of General Washington runs very high, and where everybody wishes to see him in Person; but being told that it is not likely he will ever favor them with a Visit, they hope at least for a Sight of his perfect Resemblance by means of their principal Statuary, M. Houdon, whom Mr. Jefferson and myself agreed with to come over for the purpose of taking a bust, in order to make the intended Statue for the State of Virginia. He is here, but the Materials and Instruments he sent down the Seine from Paris not being arrived at Havre when we sailed, he was obliged to leave them, and is now busied in supplying himself here. As soon as that is done, he proposes to wait on you in Virginia, as he understands there is no Prospect of your coming hither, which would indeed make me very happy; as it would give me an Opportunity of congratulating with you personally on the final Success of your long and painful Labours, in the Service of our Country, which have laid us all under eternal Obligations. With the greatest and most sincere Esteem and Respect, I am dear Sir, &c.

B. Franklin

The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, edited by Albert Henry Smyth, Vol. IX, 464-5.

Primary Source: The Diary of George Washington October 10, 1785

Monday the 10th: Observed the process for preparing the Plaister of Paris and mixing of it according to Mr. Houdon. The oven being made hotter than it is usually made for bread, the plaister, which had been previously broken into lumps, that which was hard, to about the size of a pullet’s egg, and that which was soft and could be broken with the hands, larger, was put in about noon, and remained until night, when upon examination, it was further continued until the morning without any removal of the heat in the oven, which was close stopped. Having been sufficiently calcinized by this operation, it was pulverized (into an iron mortar), and sifted through a fine lawn sieve and kept from wet. When used it was put into a bason or other vessel with water, sifted through the fingers till the water is made as thick as loblolly or very thick cream. As soon as the plaister is put in the water it is heat with an iron spoon (almost flat) until it is well mixed and must be immediately applied for the purpose for which it is intended, with a brush, or whatever else best answers, as it begins to turn hard in four or five minutes, and in seven or ten cannot be used and is fit for no purpose afterwards, as it will not bear wetting a second time. For this reason no more must be mixed at a time than can be used within the space just mentioned. The brush (common painters) must be put in water as soon as it is used, and the plaister well squeezed out, or this also becomes very hard in this case to clean it. It must be beaten till the plaister is reduced to a powder and then washed.

The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, Diaries (11 March 1748–13 December 1799), Volume 4 (1 September 1784–30 June 1786), October 10, 1785

Primary Source: Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis to Washington Parke Custis, December 3, 1849

“I wish I could give you all the information you desire in regard to Houdon’s visit to Mt. Vernon. I was only six years old at that time, and perhaps should not have retained any recollection of Houdon & his visit, had I not seen the General as I supposed, dead, & laid out on a large table over’d with a sheet. I was passing the white servants Hall & saw as I thought the Corpse of one I consider’d my Father. I went in, & found the General extended on his back on a large table, a sheet over him, except his face, on which Houdon was engaged in putting on plaster to form a cast. Quills were in the nostrills [sic]. I was very much alarmed until I was told that it was a bust, a likeness of the General & would not injure him. This is all I recollect.”

Nelly Custis Lewis to George Washington Parke Custis, December 3, 1849 (manuscript, RM-185/MS-2571, The Washington Library)

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Reproductions of Jean Antoine Houdon's life mask of George Washington masterfully re-created from 3D scans of the original object are available for purchase from The Shops at Mount Vernon.

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Resources and Further Reading

Arnason, H. H. Sculpture by Houdon: A Loan Exhibition. Worcester, Massachusetts: The Worcester Art Museum, 1964.

Biddle, Edward, and Charles Henry Hart. Memoirs of the Life and Works of Jean Antoine Houdon the Sculptor of Voltaire and Washington. Philadelphia, 1911.

Biddle, Mr. Edward and The Gorham Company. George Washington: Jean Antoine Houdon, Sculptor; Brief History of the Most Famous Sculpture Created of America’s Immortal Patriot Issued to Commemorate the Bicentennial of His Birth. Providence, Rhode Island: The Gorham Company, 1931.

Chinard, Gilbert, ed. Houdon in America: A Collection of Documents in the Jefferson Papers in the Library of Congress. L'Institute Français de Washington. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1930.

Cox, Catherine Cabell. Washington by Houdon. Richmond, Virginia: The Dietz Press, 1924.

Day, W.A. Houdon’s Washington: An Address. Atlantic City, New Jersey: The Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States, 1922.

Eisen, Gustavus A. Portraits of Washington. Volume III. New York: Robert Hamilton & Associates, 1932.

Howard, Hugh. The Painter’s Chair: George Washington and the Making of American Art. New York: Bloomsburg Press, 2009.

Mitnick, Barbara J., Ed. George Washington, American Symbol. Hudson Hills Press, New York.

Sparks, Jared. “Correspondence of the American Revolution, being letters of eminent men to George Washington from the time of his taking command of the army to the end of his presidency”; edited from the original manuscripts. Little, 1853, IV, 83.

 

Footnotes

  1. Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, Paris, December 10, 1784
  2. Ibid.
  3. Howard, 102.
  4. Eleanor Custis to Washington Parke Custis, “Genesis of a Portrait”, The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association Annual Report, 1967, pp. 11-12.
  5. Arnason, 89.

 

 

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