J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

Follow by Email


Friday, February 06, 2009

Martha Washington, Then and Now

Brigid Schulte of the Washington Post filed a story this week about Mount Vernon’s effort to update the public image of Martha Washington. The Boston Globe, Houston Chronicle, and other newspapers have picked it up.

The main visual hook of those articles is Michael Deas’s modernized portrait of Washington (detail shown here, courtesy of the Globe; click on it to go to Deas’s webpage). The Post’s caption says:

This is...based on an image that forensic anthropologists at LSU’s famous Faces Lab constructed of her by taking the bone structure of a miniature painted of Martha in middle age and putting it through a process of age regression. The image, along with a handful of letters and artifacts like her wild purple wedding slippers, that historians are using to revamp the erroneous but persistent modern image of Martha as a fat, crabby old frump that Washington only married for money.
I’ve never seen anyone refer to Martha Washington as “crabby.” (George’s mother is another story.) But the mention of “forensic anthropologists” and “bone structure” gives me an excuse to discuss this painting as part of CSI: Colonial Boston.

Deas’s painting is old enough to have appeared on the cover of Patricia Brady’s 2005 biography of Washington, where I first saw it. And right away it struck me as weird. The colors, the angularity, the sinews—none of that seemed to come from the eighteenth century. I was reassured to find the cover art credit and realize this was a modern image. It’s a fine portrait of a beautiful woman, but is that woman Martha Washington?

In fact, we have a portrait of young Martha Washington, painted by John Wollaston in 1757 when she was twenty-six. It now belongs to Washington & Lee University. And its face isn’t terribly attractive—by modern standards.

However, by the standards of the eighteenth century (and bearing in mind the limits of colonial American portrait technique before Copley), this painting shows an attractive young woman. On the 18cWoman email list Jane Pease wrote:
The Wollaston portrait and the computer-aged Deas portrait have little in common, at least on the surface. But as an indicator of cultural preferences they have very much in common indeed. Each is an image of the same young woman, but stylized to fit the fashion and tastes of the time.

The Wollaston portrait (once you can get past the protuberant Wollaston eyes, which show up on many of his subjects) reflects what society thought a young 18th-century lady ought to be—round face, plump graceful arms and hands, sloping shoulders held well back, elegant S-shape stance, a rib cage shaped by a lifetime in stays.

Deas paints a version of what late 20th-century people considered attractive: thin face, arms, and hands; protuding collarbones; sharp features; modern-day posture; the semi-athletic build of a woman who had never seen the inside of a pair of stays until 20 minutes before the photo shoot—certainly not formed in them from toddlerhood.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to see them side by side someday?

In addition, Wollaston showed Martha holding a flower while Deas portrayed her keeping her place in a book—though she wasn’t known as a writer (like Mercy Warren) or a reader (like Abigail Adams). Another sign of how the new portrait reflects what we now consider ideal.

Within a couple of decades, I suspect the people will recognize the Deas portrait immediately as an artifact of this decade while the Wollaston image will still look like an eighteenth-century woman—and, perhaps, still a little frumpy.


JudyCat said...

I had a small exhibit on Martha Washington at the Strawbery Banke Candlelight Stroll this past December. I had a poster with the Wollaston portrait and the book with the Deas and showed them to people for comparison. When the public saw the 2 side by side they too were mystified as to why the new portrait was done. They made for some good questions and became a teaching aid to show the differences in how the concept of beauty has changed in the past 200 years. When the released the news story this week I smiled to think that a few dozen people who had seen the comparison during the Candlelight Stroll could tell their friends how the new portrait wasn't quite correct.

Michael said...

The new portrait looks like Bebe Neuwirth.

J. L. Bell said...

Which makes perfect sense because Kelsey Grammer has played George Washington.

BestLion said...

I read an account I believe it was by Patrick Henry upon a visit to Mt Vernon before the war. He complimented in his notes that Mrs Washington was attractive. Also George in his younger days was a tall nice built handsome man, he could have had his pick of the liter. He was well off also. George wrote the Lafayette, about the French women and about dont worry for a rival. So I think Ole George in his day had a few women before and during his time with Martha. Also being Southerner it was more of the norm then.
I think the Deas portrait is more accurate....I mean the old 1750s picture she is not attractive at all. George was not a desperate man and I doubt he would have went for some toad.

J. L. Bell said...

There’s no question that people of the eighteenth century found Martha Washington as a young woman to be attractive, and throughout her life to be friendly. She was also a wealthy widow when she met George—far more wealthy than he.

The issue in those portraits is that standards for what people find attractive have changed over the centuries. Of course the modern portrait looks more attractive to our modern eyes. But would the woman in that portrait look attractive to George Washington, or would she look bony and uncultured?