In yesterday’s Boston Globe an op-ed essay by George H. Rosen retold an anecdote about Jean-Antoine Houdon making a life mask of George Washington in 1785. I can’t confirm the details of that anecdote, which sound a lot like the story of John Henri Isaac Browere making a similar life mask of Thomas Jefferson forty years later. But the underlying incident is documented.
The state of Virginia wanted a full-size statue of its celebrated general. Jefferson, then an American diplomat in Paris, sought out Houdon, a promising French sculptor, and made a deal with him to travel to America to start the work. (Jefferson also bought insurance in case Houdon couldn’t finish the job.)
Houdon arrived at Mount Vernon in October 1785 with recommendations from Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. He spent a few days observing how his host stood, taking measurements, and deciding that the expression he wanted to capture was when the general became upset at a horse-trader.
On 10 October, Washington wrote in his diary: “Observed the process for preparing the plaster of Paris and mixing of it according to Mr. Houdon.” To capture the general’s physiognomy, Houdon would pour that plaster over the general’s face and let it harden.
Washington’s granddaughter Nelly Custis later recorded her memory of the process:
I was only six years old at that time, and perhaps should not have retained any recollection of Houdon & his visit, had I not seen the General as I supposed, dead, & laid out on a large table coverd with a sheet. I was passing the white servants Hall & saw as I thought the Corpse of one I considerd my Father, I went in, & found the General extended on his back on a large table, a sheet over him, except his face, on which Houdon was engaged in putting on plaster to form the cast. Quills were in the nostrills. I was very much alarmed until I was told that it was a bust, a likeness of the General & would not injure him.I suppose folks might have told Nelly this was for a bust. The quills were to let Washington breathe through the plaster.
The cast no longer exists, it appears. The plaster mask Houdon made with it is at the Morgan Library and Museum, and the terra cotta bust that he made next is at Mount Vernon. Houdon returned to Paris to complete the full-sized statue, which stands in the Virginia capitol building; it’s a magnificent portrait. Many replicas have been made; I recall encountering two ’round these parts at the Boston Athenaeum and the Sheraton Commander Hotel in Cambridge.
(The image above is the replica of Houdon’s life mask of Washington that one can buy from Haunted Studios.)