July 28, 2012
No, no, I didn’t stop off at George Washington’s distillery—a mile down the road from Mount Vernon. And I didn’t linger over his long dining table for after dinner Madeira. It would have been an honor to do so, however. I wanted to honor the memory of His Excellency in my own way. So I got plastered. This week, I had a life mask done.
George Washington famously submitted to having a life mask done. His Excellency had only recently retired to Mount Vernon, having resigned his commission to Congress. In 1785, the Virginia General Assembly wanted a true likeness of Virginia’s favorite son. They turned to America’s new minister to France, the young Virginian Thomas Jefferson. Mr. Jefferson responded promptly: “There could be no question raised as to the sculptor who should be employed; the reputation of Monsieur Houdon of this city being unrivalled in Europe.”
Washington would have been enthusiastically received in France. But he had a keen sense of his own role and dignity. He would have felt out of place where he could not understand a word of the language. So Jean Antoine Houdon would come to America. So great was George Washington’s reputation in Europe that the greatest sculptor in the world fairly leaped at the chance. Besides, if you have to cross the stormy North Atlantic, who better to go with than Benjamin Franklin? The aging genius was returning from France and his wild success as America’s first minister there.
Arriving in Philadelphia with Franklin, Houdon got a letter from Mount Vernon bidding him to come straightaway. Washington evidently liked the fact that Houdon was all business. Jefferson had described the Frenchman as “panting after glory.” [George Washington: Patriot and President, vol. VI, Douglas Southall Freeman, p. 42] Biographer Freeman records that “Houdon looked, Houdon listened as best he could—and Houdon worked.”
We can all be glad that he did. The Houdon bust is the best likeness of our Founding Father that we will ever have. And the Houdon statue of Washington, which is a full length version of the bust, is a most meaningful symbol of the early republic. Author Gary Wills notes that Washington, like the classic Roman general, Cincinnatus, is shown draping his military cape over a column. His sword, likewise, is retired to its scabbard as Washington steps out with a very civilian walking stick. Here, Washington returns to his status as a gentleman farmer.
This is a better likeness of America’s “indispensable man” than the familiar Gilbert Stuart portrait. Stuart was a chatty fellow who liked to put his subjects at ease with a lot of gossipy talk. Washington was not a stiff, but the Stuart portrait makes him seem so.
Biographer James Thomas Flexner, who was also a leading American art historian, wrote that no one had done more harm to Washington’s historical image than Gilbert Stuart. First Lady Dolley Madison would save the full length Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington when the British came to burn the White House in 1814. There are times, however, when I wish she hadn’t.
Flexner says the “snaffle-mouthed” Stuart portrait of Washington unfairly emphasizes the older man’s ill-fitting dentures. He gazes down on us with a somewhat disapproving air.
Houdon left Mount Vernon and returned to Paris. When the statue of Washington was finished, he didn’t even send a letter describing it, or, as Freeman notes, did he ask if Washington liked it. “Houdon let the marble speak for itself. It did.”
My Annapolis friends, Tom and Ann Stagnaro, are both creative people. They volunteered to do a life mask of me. Tom’s carvings of birds and gargoyles are a marvel. And Ann is a connoisseur and collector of fine quilts. They first had me grease my face with vaseline. Then they sat me down on a chaise lounge in their kitchen. A rubber skull cap would keep plaster out of my hair. Straws up my nose would let me breathe. Or so I thought. I had come straight from the pool and was a bit congested.
I no sooner had my face and neck covered with alginate and felt it begin to harden than I had the sense of being encased, almost entombed. When Ann offered stories of grandchildren, I could only give her a thumbs up or down. I remained calm. “Only fifteen more minutes,” Tom said. Fifteen minutes! I didn’t want my visage preserved in a kind of rictus—an open-mouthed grimace.
Thanks to Houdon, we have timeless images not only of Washington, but also of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Paul Jones. The dashing naval hero Jones had twenty-three copies of his bust made to share with his best friends in America. It was this bust that searchers used to identify Jones’ body when it was exhumed from a Paris cemetery a full century after his death. His remains were brought home to America where they rest in the Crypt beneath the U.S. Naval Academy Chapel. Before we had DNA, we had Jean Antoine Houdon.
I’m most grateful to Tom and Ann for doing a life mask of me. And I told them they had solved another mystery about George Washington’s life and death. As he lay dying at Mount Vernon in December, 1799, Washington gave strict orders to the faithful Tobias Lear. Do not let me be put in the grave until three days after I am dead. Now I know why.