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Mount Vernon's Forensic Investigation of George Washington

Fri, 10/29/2010

“CSI: Mount Vernon”
How Forensic Anthropology, Art, and Historical Research
Created the “Real” George Washington

An Ambitious Venture
Several years ago, Mount Vernon asked its visitors to evaluate their experience at George Washington’s home.  Surprisingly, top concerns were not “comfort” issues such as standing in line to tour or the lack of air conditioning in the Mansion at the time.  Rather, visitors stated over and over how they wanted to learn more about the “real” George Washington.  Taking this information to heart, Mount Vernon embarked upon a journey to tell the full story of Washington’s life.

Deciding that physical appearance is a crucial element to learning about and relating to the “real” George Washington, Mount Vernon’s Executive Director, Jim Rees, and staff determined that the ubiquitous image of the staid elder statesman had to be dispelled.  Instead, visitors needed to see what Washington looked like as an adventurous young surveyor and frontiersman, as the forceful commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary War forces, and as the dynamic first president of the United States. 

But how, when no portraits exist that depict Washington younger than 40?  While watching a news program one morning, Rees saw a story about a man who was attempting to extrapolate what Jesus looked like based on imprints on the Shrine of Turin.  Knowing there were many more concrete resources about Washington from which to draw, Rees contemplated ways to reconstruct the man, and met with experts to conceive of an unprecedented project which would unite the fields of art, science, and historical research.

Lasers and Dentures and Masks – Oh My!
Rees knew Mount Vernon had a priceless artifact that would be central to the project: the Houdon bust.  In 1785, when Washington was 53, French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon traveled to Mount Vernon.  For two weeks, he observed the future president, created a plaster life mask from an imprint of Washington’s face, and sculpted a bust.  Because the bust was made using the life mask as a reference, it was a faithful representation of the great man and the portrait Washington’s family pointed to as the best likeness of him.

Not wanting to disturb George Washington’s remains, Mount Vernon relied upon the expertise of a forensic anthropologist to analyze the Houdon bust, life mask, and other objects that would yield clues to Washington’s facial structure and characteristics.  Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, a professor of forensic anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh who has done paleontological and archaeological fieldwork and extensive museum research throughout the world, took on the assignment.  “This project was a unique intellectual challenge,” said Dr. Schwartz.  “I just had to go for it because, after all, how many times do you get to try to reconstruct the Father of Our Country?”

Dr. Schwartz started by comparing two-dimensional paintings to look for consistencies in facial and body structures and to find features of identification, also called individuation.  Some artists were known for reproducing realistic faces, others for their precision in painting parts of the body, all of which were taken into consideration when making comparisons.

Next, Dr. Anshuman Razdan and his team from the Partnership for Research in Spatial Modeling (PRISM), a computer “think tank” at Arizona State University, used three-dimensional software and geometric modeling to scan with a laser beam – the most accurate measurement available – the Houdon bust, Washington’s dentures, his spectacles, the life mask of Washington, and Houdon’s life-size marble statue of Washington standing in the Virginia State Capitol building in Richmond.  

Special technology invented by PRISM allowed Dr. Schwartz to get a virtual understanding of Washington’s features and related objects.  When necessary, he was able to modify the computerized images based on information he collected.  For example, after analyzing the life mask and bust, Dr. Schwartz determined that Washington most likely did not have his dentures in, a factor that would have compromised the integrity of his facial structure.  Dr. Schwartz was able to virtually insert Washington’s dentures into the bust so that his jaw would “properly” be depicted as the starting point from which the models would be based.

Dr. Schwartz also knew how the body changes as it ages.  Cartilage grows as people age, which results in lengthened ear lobes and noses.  When teeth are lost, bone around the teeth erodes, something that happened to Washington starting in his 20s.  These were major areas that had to be appropriately age-regressed to arrive at a 19-year-old and 45-year-old Washington and age-progressed to create the 57-year-old president.

When Dr. Schwartz finalized the computerized models of Washington, the images consisting of hundreds of thousands of data points were sent to Kreysler Laboratories in California, which took the information and from it created foam heads that were delivered to StudioEIS, a 3-D design and fabrication studio in New York City.   

Do the Research!
Before StudioEIS moved forward with their artistic interpretation, primary documentation including written descriptions of Washington’s height and features were consulted.  Scholars at Mount Vernon compiled information from 18th-century letters which underscored Washington’s exceptional height (roughly 6’2”), large hands and feet, and athleticism.   QUOTE a letter here.

Linda Baumgarten with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation took detailed measurements of several pieces of Washington’s clothing and examined them for any signs of alteration.  From the existing breeches, waistcoats, and stockings, and taking into consideration 18th-century fashion and how clothing fit on the body, Baumgarten determined what Washington’s posture was like, the length of his limbs, and the size of his chest and waist.  

Baumgarten worked with Henry Cook, a clothing expert, to figure the volumetric measurements of Washington’s body.  Cook then took those measurements and created patterns from which he developed reproductions of Washington’s Revolutionary War uniform and his inaugural suit. Because no original surveying clothing exists, Cook fabricated that outfit based on historical information.

Hair color was another area that required analysis. The Revolutionary War general and the presidential figures’ hair colors are based on hair samples in the Mount Vernon collection.  As Washington grew more famous during and after the war, many relatives, friends, and acquaintances asked for souvenir locks of his hair, and the Washington family acceded to many requests.  Several locks of hair from different time periods have made their way back into the Mount Vernon collection.  They range in color from chestnut brown to deep grey.  In order to determine the correct color for each figure, a variety of real and wig hair samples were compared to Washington’s actual locks of hair.  The sample hair was mixed and blended until a proper match was achieved.

Washington Comes to Life
Armed with the scientifically-based foam forms and historical documentation, sculptors at StudioEIS began the process of making George Washington look like a living, breathing person.  Under the direction of Ivan Schwartz, StudioEIS took the foam heads, covered them with clay and meticulously sculpted facial expressions appropriate to the three scenarios.  Using an ancient method that requires a high level of skill, piece molds were constructed around the clay models to achieve accuracy and preserve the fragile heads.  This painstaking process is considered to be practically a lost art form in modern times and necessitated a molder with a highly developed skill.  

Wax was then poured into the molds to form the most realistic, lifelike head possible.  Sue Day, an expert from Great Britain who learned her trade from Madame Taussaud’s Wax Museum, was flown in to paint the wax to mimic skin color – including veins, blemishes, and texture – at various ages.  Day implanted real human hair that matched the color of Washington’s at all three ages and inserted blue eyes, aging them to a young, bright-eyed 19-year-old, a tired but determined 45-year-old, and a battle-tested, older 57-year-old.

StudioEIS created the bodies from the clothing patterns provided by Cook, which gave them volumetric guidelines.  Muscle tone and posture were considerations for making the figures feel true-to-life.  Fabricated of plaster, the bodies were dressed in accurate, hand-stitched reproduction clothing.  

After months of challenging processes, Ivan Schwartz was satisfied that his team had successfully portrayed the “real” George Washington.  “Finding the man himself, extrapolated from such a complex kaleidoscope of paintings, sculpture, clothing and scientific research, has been remarkable,” said Schwartz.

As a 19-year-old surveyor, a 3-D Washington will be placed in the forest surrounded by 3-D trees with his actual surveying equipment nearby.  Visitors will feel like they have just happened upon Washington surveying uncharted land in the Ohio River Valley.

The next model of Washington will be in the Revolutionary War gallery at the age of 45.  Featuring Washington on a horse with a stoic and determined expression, the gallery will also include artifacts such as Washington’s own pistol and a reproduced soldier’s cabin that will be cooled to temperatures reminiscent of the harsh winters at Valley Forge.  Through the cabin’s window visitors will see a History Channel video showcasing General Von Stueben drilling the fledgling troops.

The final 3-D Washington will be standing on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City, where Washington is seen being sworn in as the first president when he was 57.  Alongside the new president are Otis and Livingston - MORE   There will be an illustration of a Bible on which visitors will be able to place their hands, triggering the roar of the crowd.  


Principal Investigators
Science and Technology    
•    Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, Professor of Anthropology, University of Pittsburgh
•    PRISM (Partnership for Research in Spatial Modeling), Arizona State University, under the direction of Dr. Anshuman Razdan

Art and Interpretation
•    StudioEIS, New York, New York, under the direction of Ivan Schwartz
•    Stuart Williamson, sculptor, Ecuador
•    Sue Day, painter, England

Historical Research
•    Linda Baumgarten, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
•    Henry Cook, costume expert, MA
•    Ken Treese, footwear expert, Williamsburg
•    Staff at Historic Mount Vernon

Advisors to the Forensics Project
•    Dr. Phil Chase, Senior Editor, The Papers of George Washington
•    Marc Pachter, Director, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
•    Rick Sexton, Forensic Artist, Fairfax County Police Department
•    Glenn Miller, The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
•    Kevin Miller, Ph.D., Anthropology Expert, Facial Recognition

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Schwartz has published 10 books and volumes on human and primate evolution, human skeletal analysis, and evolutionary theory, including the first study of virtually the entire human fossil record.  

PRISM was established in 1996 to foster research and application of 3-D modeling and visualization to interdisciplinary research at Arizona State University, Tempe.

StudioEIS has been designing and producing museum figures worldwide since 1976. The New York based studio produces a range of 3-D projects for museums, architects, interior and restaurant designers, corporations, retail, and the entertainment world.  Designers and producers of the largest bronze portrait project in American history for the National Constitution Center, StudioEIS is renowned for the projects it has done for numerous presidential libraries and museums.  The studio is currently at work on the new National Museum of the Marine Corps.