George Washington's Image To Be Updated





Warren E. Leary, The New York Times, 02 Nov. 2004

Mention George Washington and the first image conjured up by most people is that of a stern, old white-haired man with a piercing gaze. Seeing him every day on dollar bills and quarters, it is hard to imagine that he was not born looking like that.

A group of scientists, historians, archivists and other experts has set out to change all of that. Working from forensic evidence, documents and all manner of historical sleuthing, they are on a quest to put life and youth back into Washington.

The curators of Washington's Mount Vernon estate in Virginia are starting his makeover by asking a basic question: What did George Washington actually look like? While there are hundreds of paintings of the first president, Washington posed for relatively few of them, and the image portrayed often was modified by the artist's style.

To uncover the ''real'' George Washington, the estate drafted Dr. Jeffrey H. Schwartz, a professor of physical anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh and forensic expert, to lead a team that would reconstruct Washington's appearance based upon the best available sources. Using the latest computer imaging techniques, the team is trying to combine data from sculpture, paintings, physical artifacts like clothing and dentures, and written records to reproduce what Washington would have looked like in person.

And to make the project even more challenging, the team is trying to push imaging science to its limits by accurately depicting Washington as he would have looked at three stages of his life: a 19-year-old surveyor who earned his military reputation fighting for the British in the French and Indian War; the 45-year-old who took command of the Colonial Army during the Revolutionary War; and the 57-year-old statesman as he was sworn in as the first president of the new republic.

Dr. Schwartz said the base line image of Washington would be as he appeared at age 53, when the most accurate material on his appearance captured him. It was at this time that Jean-Antoine Houdon, a French neo-Classical sculptor famous for the accurate renditions of his subjects, went to Mount Vernon for several weeks to study, sketch and measure Washington for a life-size statue and bust. Washington's family members remarked that the resulting bust was the best likeness of him they had ever seen.

Using this digital image of Washington at 53, the researchers first will use computer software to ''age'' him to what he looked like as a 57-year-old. Similar techniques are now used to portray the current appearance of children who have been missing for years. Then the project will enter unexplored territory when it tries to ''deconstruct,'' or de-age, Washington's image using custom software being written by an Arizona State University multidiscipline computer group called the Partnership for Research in Spatial Modeling, or Prism.

''This hasn't been done before, and we are not kidding ourselves into thinking it won't be a challenge,'' Dr. Schwartz said. ''But what an opportunity this is. How often do you get a chance to try reconstructing the father of our country?''

The reconstruction project, which will cost an estimated $500,000, is part of an $85 million campaign by Mount Vernon to restore and revitalize interest in one of the country's most pivotal leaders, said James C. Rees, executive director of the estate. The project involves building a museum and an education center that will feature 23 galleries and theaters, as well as a presidential library. Most of the construction will be underground, as not to disrupt usual tours of the grounds and mansion, which attract almost a million visitors a year.

Mr. Rees said the new images of Washington would be used to create three life-size models depicting the man at three major moments in his life. Surveys of young people indicate that while they view Washington as important, they also think of him only as a stiff, boring old man.

''We want to change all of that,'' Mr. Rees said. ''Washington was athletic, adventurous and risk-taking, known to be one of the finest horsemen of his day and willing to meet challenges head-on. Some have called him the nation's first action hero.''

To determine Washington's true appearance, the research team is starting with Houdon's works. The sculptor visited Mount Vernon in October 1785 to observe Washington, making sketches, taking notes and using calipers and rules to measure his body. Houdon also made a ''life mask'' of Washington to capture his features, covering the general's face with plaster and having him lie down for several hours, breathing through two straws, while it hardened.

With this information, Houdon made the bust of Washington that remains at Mount Vernon, and the full-size statue completed years later that resides in the rotunda of the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond.

The reconstruction of Washington starts with putting information about his appearance into digital form where it can be compared and tweaked.

The Arizona computer graphics group, led by Dr. Anshuman Razdan, has used portable laser scanning equipment to capture the three-dimensional shape of sculpture and other objects related to Washington's appearance.


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