Brooklyn, N.Y. -- In an airy studio not far from the spot where his Continental Army was nearly crushed, George Washington is being reborn in plaster and wax.
Artists, working with digital images created by a forensic anthropologist, are putting finishing touches on wax sculptures so realistic they should shatter stereotypes when displayed at Mount Vernon this year.
"I think people are going to be shocked, really shocked by what they see," James C. Rees, executive director of Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens in Virginia, said during a recent visit to the studio where the wax figures are being hand-painted.
Officials at Mount Vernon are spending $95 million in donated funds on new exhibits that will include figures of Washington at three stages in his life: an ambitious 19-year-old surveyor, a weary 45-year-old field commander and a deep-thinking, 57-year-old president being sworn into office.
They are intended to bring Washington's image to life, creating a more vivid portrayal than the stiff Gilbert Stuart icon on the dollar bill. They will be included in new buildings that will add five times the exhibition space at Mount Vernon. More than half of the new space will be underground to minimize disruption of the pastoral setting. The opening has been set for Oct. 27.
"The whole thing is about searching for the real George Washington," Rees said. "The dollar bill image has become such an icon, and it just doesn't have human life attached to it."
The figures being sculpted at StudioEIS in Brooklyn are a blend of science and art -- a result of digital images created by Jeffrey Schwartz, a University of Pittsburgh scientist. The forensic anthropologist spent four years analyzing the details of Washington's portraits, spectacles, dentures and other artifacts in search of the real George.
Schwartz had a lot to work with. As part of his investigation, he came to Baltimore last year to make laser scans that provided fine-tuned measurements of the set of Washington's dentures displayed at the National Museum of Dentistry. (There are four known sets.)
He also examined dozens of paintings. Washington sat for 25 painters, including Charles Willson Peale, his son Rembrandt Peale and John Trumbull. Stuart did more than 65 portraits of Washington, including three based on personal observations made during sittings.
Choosing a single portrait as the most accurate portrayal of Washington would be impossible, said Ellen Miles, curator of painting and sculpture at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and one of several experts whom Schwartz consulted as part of the project.
"The artists were uneven. They were uneven in training, they were uneven in their goals, they were uneven in their talent," Miles said. "And some of them had more time than others."
Schwartz, who published a report of the project in this month's Scientific American, said the most informative work of art was the bust of Washington by Jean Antoine Houdon during his two-week visit to Mount Vernon when Washington was 53. For the bust, the French artist created a life mask of Washington by applying plaster to his face during a sitting that required breathing through a straw.
But what Washington looked like as a young man has remained a mystery. The earliest portraits were done by Charles Willson Peale when Washington was 40 and 47.
As people age, cartilage in the ears and nose continue to grow, making noses and ears longer. Washington's were no exception.
But Washington, who had a penchant for cracking walnuts open with his teeth, began losing teeth in his 20s, and at 57 he had only one tooth left. His famous dental problems gradually changed the shape of his jaw -- reducing the distance from his nose to his chin as he aged.
"The whole front of his mouth got shorter as he got older," Schwartz said.
Schwartz created computerized three-dimensional digital images of the Houdon bust, scanned a healthy jaw about the size of Washington's and inserted it digitally into the scan of the bust. He then digitally added bone to the jaw working backward in time to re-create the face as it would have been structured with more teeth, first at age 45 and then at 19.
Schwartz discovered that Washington looked very different than the dollar bill image. From studying the portraits and applying what he knows about how people age, he concluded that Washington had a deep jaw as a young man and developed a bit of a double chin later.
No one is sure what Washington weighed, but the 6-foot-2 president was a thin man at 19. Washington is often described as strapping. But strapping in 1751 did not mean broad shoulders or thick muscles.
Among the upper crust in the 18th century, people admired a narrow shape, a style that encouraged men to hold their shoulders back in public in what was considered a dignified posture. As was the custom among status-conscious families at the time, Washington was corseted as a child to give his body more of a ballet dancer's shape, Schwartz said.