News From Terre Haute, Indiana

February 17, 2013

HISTORICAL TREASURE: Dentures created stern Presidential expression

Linda Patrick
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — “He was indeed … a wise, a good, and a great man.”

— Thomas Jefferson speaking of George Washington



President’s Day is Feb. 18, so what better Historic Treasure to share with you than the most famous portrait of our first president, George Washington. This portrait, called the Athenaeum portrait, is one of three life portraits of the president painted by Gilbert Stuart. The other two are the Vaughan type (the original is missing), which shows the president facing right, and the full-length Lansdowne portrait. All of Stuart’s subsequent paintings of the president were taken from these three life portraits.

Stuart was one of America’s greatest portrait painters. Trained in Europe, he was known for his elegant and fashionable portrait style. His use of subtly varied skin tones in separate, unblended touches of the brush, and alternating darker and lighter flesh tones in shaded areas to indicate shadow and reflected light, gives a strikingly fresh aspect to his work.

The portrait itself, measuring 48-by-37 inches, was painted in 1796, when the president was 64 years old. There were some problems at first. For campaign reasons, starting in 1789, the president had been wearing dentures that were awkward to hold in his mouth and caused his face to become sunken. To provide a more natural look, Stuart ordered a larger pair of dentures to be made and used cotton to expand the mouth area. However, the dentures created a bulge and distorted the president’s jaw line, giving him a rather stern expression.

Stuart never finished the portrait and kept it until his death in 1828. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Smithsonian Institution now jointly own the portrait. It is on display in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. The print shown here hangs in the School Room of your Historical Society.

Would you like to know what George Washington really looked like? As the first elected president of a new country he became one of the most famous men in the world. Artists of all types and skill levels clamored for his attention. To save time from posing, Washington agreed to have a life mask made of his face. In 1785 French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon visited Mount Vernon and created the life mask of the then 53-year-old Washington. That life mask still survives and is on display at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City. An Internet search of “George Washington life mask” will bring up many images of this treasure.