George Washington: the hunk

A team of experts offers a new look at the first American president

October 09, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- It turns out that George Washington was one good-looking guy.

The image of Washington as a young man is slowly becoming clearer, and it is not what first comes to mind when people think of the "father of our country." Instead of a white-haired old man, think of a rangy hunk who looks like a quarterback.

Researchers working to change perceptions of Washington by re-creating his image at earlier times in his life have produced three-dimensional computer images of what he must have looked like at ages 19, 45 and 57. Using a combination of forensic science, anthropology, computer graphics and a lot of detective work, they show faces that are both familiar and different.

"I feel good about the faces we have," said Jeffrey H. Schwartz, a professor of physical anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh and the forensic expert who is leading a team of scientists, historians, archivists and other experts on the project. "It's probably about as close as anyone can get to determining what Washington actually looked like."

The reworking of Washington's appearance is part of an $85 million renovation at Mount Vernon, his old estate in Virginia, which will be finished next fall. The project involves building a museum, an education center and a presidential library, all owned by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association. The new images are being used to create three life-size models depicting him at three major moments in his life: at 19 as a young adventurer, at 45 as a soldier leading the Continental Army and at 57 when he was sworn in as the first president.

There are hundreds of pictures of Washington as an older man, but he posed for relatively few of them, and the portraits often differed according to the artist's style. Using the latest computer graphics techniques, the team combined data from sculptures, paintings, physical artifacts such as clothing and dentures, and written records to reproduce what Washington would have looked like in person.

The researchers started with Washington as he appeared at age 53, when the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, known for his accurate renditions, went to Mount Vernon for several weeks to study, sketch and measure Washington for a life-size statue and bust. A computer graphics group at Arizona State University used laser-scanning equipment to capture the shape of these sculptures, as well as dentures and other artifacts, and designed software to manipulate the features and age of the resulting images.

There are no portraits of the younger Washington, who went west as a surveyor in his teenage years and later fought in the French and Indian War.

But the researchers used age-regression techniques developed during the project that took into account the famed dental problems and other features seen in the face of images of the older Washington.

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