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George Washington: A Likeness of Greatness

What did George Washington look like? We are familiar with the stern-looking figure on the dollar bill and paintings of him from history books.

However, through the work of a talented French sculptor from Washington’s time and modern forensic science, we have what are considered the most accurate images of our first president.

Jean-Antoine Houdon carved a life-size marble statue of Washington after taking detailed body measurements and making a life mask of Washington’s face during a visit to Mount Vernon in 1785. The amazingly detailed and realistic statue has stood in the rotunda of the Virginia state Capitol in Richmond since 1796.

“It’s the gold standard for knowing his actual height and appearance,” said Mark Greenough, supervisor of guides at the Capitol.

Several Washington contemporaries, including his granddaughter, said the statue was a dead-on likeness. “That is the man, himself,” said Lafayette. “I can almost realize he is going to move.”

A similarly lifelike bust Houdon made during his visit and left with Washington is on display at Mount Vernon.

Forensic scientists and anthropologists working with Mount Vernon have taken the sculptor’s work a step further. A team led by Jeffrey Schwartz of the University of Pittsburgh did extensive examinations and measurements of Houdon’s bust, statue and life mask and Washington’s clothing and used the latest computer modeling technology to come up with lifelike models of Washington at three stages of his life.

Displayed in realistic tableaux at Mount Vernon’s education center are Washington as a 19-year-old surveyor, as the 45-year-old head of the Revolutionary army and the newly elected 57-year-old president being sworn into office.