RALEIGH, N.C. — There’s the George Washington made famous in the Gilbert Stuart portrait found in many elementary schools and, in engraved fashion, on the $1-dollar bill: a severe man, whose severity is accentuated by thin, taut lips.
And then there’s the real Washington: an entrepreneur who developed the nation’s largest distillery; a deeply religious man who wrote in a letter to a synagogue that the new country would give “to bigotry no sanction”; a slave owner who believed slavery would tear apart the country; and a dental patient whose ill-fitting, hinged dentures were most likely the cause of his stern look in the Stuart portrait.
A clearer picture of the real Washington emerges in a new exhibit, “Discover the Real George Washington: New Views from Mount Vernon,” currently on display at the North Carolina Museum of History. While the only surviving complete set of Washington’s dentures is likely to draw the most attention among the 100 or so objects in the exhibition, the real stars are three life-size wax figures showing him at 19, when he was a surveyor; at 45 as commander in chief at Valley Forge, sitting on his blue roan horse, Blueskin; and taking the oath of office at 57 on the balcony of Federal Hall.
The figures, with human hair, are based on studies by Jeffrey Schwartz, an anthropology professor at the University of Pittsburgh, who used a minimal amount of artifacts to help create them.
Mount Vernon declined to give Schwartz access to Washington’s skeleton, so he moved to other objects: clothing (but no shoes, boots or hats); a statue, bust and life mask by Jean-Antoine Houdon; the one complete set of dentures, made not of wood but of bone, tusk and ivory; and various portraits.
“I tried to double-check everything,” he said in a phone interview. “Instead of saying, Houdon was told not to make the statue larger than life, I checked it against the clothing. I checked the face of the life mask with the bust.
“I don’t think you could get any closer even if you have Washington’s skeleton.”
The exhibit also highlights Washington’s grounded nature. A painting by John Trumbull, for example, shows Washington resigning his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, which he did to Congress assembled in Annapolis, Md.
Washington “could have been anything that he wanted to be,” said Carol Cadou, vice president of collections and senior curator at Mount Vernon. “People were already referring to him as king, and he certainly could have been American royalty. Instead, he believed so strongly — as did the other founding fathers — in those principles of a republic and a democracy that he went to Congress, resigned his commission and did something else quite extraordinary, which was to bare his head.”
Typically, an 18th-century gentleman would not remove his hat and tip his head unless he was submitting to another person, Cadou said.
“It was a remarkable experiment that, of course, made George Washington even more famous,” she said. “But his eyes were on Mount Vernon, and he wanted to return home.”
At Mount Vernon, he and Martha Washington were overwhelmed with guests. In one year, Mount Vernon hosted more than 670 overnight guests. Guests continued to visit after Washington’s two terms as president ended in 1797.
Visitors may have led to Washington’s death on Dec. 14, 1799, Cadou said. He had been riding his lands and when he returned home, guests had arrived. He didn’t change out of his wet clothes and, 24 hours later, he was unable to get out of bed.