Was George Washington the victim of 18th century airbrushing?

It's not just modern magazines that tweak people's faces to fit the standard of beauty. For hundreds of years, portraits have been altered to reflect whatever ideas of beauty that people had at the time. Every woman in the 18th century appears to have the same nose. No one in the 17th century had any eyebrows to speak of. And everyone at every time had flawless skin despite limited access to soap. It's not certain that if a historical figure appeared today beside their portrait, anyone would recognize them.

Eric Altschuler of the New Jersey School of Medicine and Krista Ehinger of MIT wondered how closely the iconic portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart resembled its actual subject. The portrait, though dignified, definitely did not make Washington look like a pretty boy, so the alterations would be subtle, but almost every portrait painter shifts some things around.


There are no photographs of George Washington, but Gilbert Stuart painted many people, some of whom lived into the age of photographic technology. Because Stuart was such a reknowned painter, his subjects were high profile enough to have both their portraits and their photographs preserved. The photographs show Stuart to be an accurate painter, but he did make a few changes. He worked most aggressively on noses, smoothing out bumps, narrowing the ends, and taking away crinkles at the eyebrow ridge. His cheekbones and eyebrows are also higher than the actual subjects.

So what was George Washington's actual face?

It looks a great deal less stern than his portrait, but the differences are subtle. If they are to get more extensive, more photographs need to be unearthed. To that effect, the people working on the project have set up a website, requesting any photos that people have of the subject of Stuart's portraits. Check out the other reconstituted pictures of historical subjects there, as well.

[Via AAAS and MIT.]


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