RALEIGH, N.C. — There’s the George Washington made famous in the Gilbert Stuart portrait found in many elementary schools and, in engraved fashion, on the $1-dollar bill: a severe man, whose severity is accentuated by thin, taut lips.
And then, there’s the real Washington: an entrepreneur who developed the nation’s largest distillery; a deeply religious man who wrote in a letter to a synagogue that the new country would give “to bigotry no sanction”; a slave owner who believed slavery would tear apart the country; and a dental patient whose ill-fitting, hinged dentures were most likely the cause of his stern look in the Stuart portrait.
That’s the Washington portrayed in “Discover the Real George Washington: New Views from Mount Vernon,” in an exhibit at the N.C. Museum of History. The exhibition — which continues into January 2011, then moves to seven other states before returning home to Mount Vernon in 2013 — opens with the Stuart portrait, then moves to dispel the misconceptions created by that famous painting. The exhibit started in Pittsburgh at the Heinz History Center before opening Sept. 10 in Raleigh.
“This is obviously an iconic portrait in the Mount Vernon collection but also a wonderful introduction to the exhibition because it gives you a very good idea of some of the myths that we’re trying to dispel and some of the things we’re trying to learn beyond this portrait,” said Carol Cadou, vice president of collections and senior curator at Mount Vernon.
While the only surviving complete set of Washington’s dentures is likely to draw the most attention among the 100 or objects in the exhibition, the real stars are three life-size wax figures of the first president showing him at the age of 19, when he was a surveyor; at 45 as commander in chief at Valley Forge, sitting on his blue roan horse, Blueskin; and taking the oath office at 57 on the balcony of Federal Hall.
The figures, with human hair, are based on studies by Jeffrey Schwartz, an anthropology professor at the University of Pittsburgh, who used a minimal amount of material related to Washington to help create them.
Mount Vernon declined to give Schwartz access to Washington’s skeleton so he moved to other objects: clothing (but no shoes, boots or hats); a statue, bust and life mask by Jean-Antoine Houdon; the one complete set of dentures, made not of wood but of bone, tusk and ivory; and various portraits.
Still, he’s certain that the figures represent a true view of Washington.
“I’m very confident,” he said in a phone interview. “I tried to double-check everything. I didn’t just use the statue. I didn’t just use the clothing. I didn’t just use one thing. Instead of saying, Houdon was told not to make the statue larger than life, I checked it against the clothing. I checked the face of the life mask with the bust.
“I don’t think you could get any closer even if you have Washington’s skeleton.”
Perhaps President Obama took his cue from Washington when he ordered his inaugural suit from a U.S. company — the last figure of Washington shows him wearing a plain, brown suit from cloth made at a mill in Hartford, Conn.
Under British rule, the colonies weren’t allowed to import looms. Instead, they were supposed to send all raw goods back to Britain, which would mill them and send them back to the colonies — with high prices and taxes attached.
“He certainly knew how his inauguration would be seen around the globe,” Cadou said, noting that the ambassador from the Netherlands commented on the magnitude of Washington’s suit choice.
That’s just one example of Washington’s grounded nature. Another is illustrated in the painting by John Trumbull, which shows Washington resigning his commission as commander in chief of the Continental Army to Congress assembled in Annapolis, Md. A graphic of that work is part of the exhibit.
Washington “could have been anything that he wanted to be,” Cadou said. “People were already referring to him as king, and he certainly could have been American royalty. Instead, he believed so strongly — as did the other founding fathers — in those principles of a republic and a democracy that he went to Congress, resigned his commission and did something else quite extraordinary, which was to bear his head.”
Typically, an 18th-century gentleman would not remove his hat and tip his head unless he was submitting to another person, Cadou said.
“It was a remarkable experiment that, of course, made George Washington even more famous,” she said. “But his eyes were on Mount Vernon and he wanted to return home.”
At Mount Vernon, he and Martha Washington were overwhelmed with guests. In one year, Mount Vernon hosted more than 670 overnight guests. Guests continued to visit after Washington’s two terms as president ended in 1797.
Visitors may have led to Washington’s death on Dec. 14, 1799, Cadou said. He had been riding his lands and when he returned home, guests had arrived. He didn’t change out of his wet clothes and 24 hours later, he was unable to get out of bed.
His death brought on a period of national mourning that included mock funerals in all major cities. People would ask Martha Washington for locks of hair and set his buttons in gold for ornaments.
“Washington becomes now this very revered and this very beloved hero,” Cadou said. “I think we just can’t imagine a figure that would endear this much attention, this much national sentiment.”