Mount Vernon unveils a portrait of our founding mother as a young woman.
Martha Washington was a chubby 57-year-old given to wearing a pillowy white hat when she became the nation’s first first lady and is now remembered as a bit of a frump. “Paintings portray her as an old woman wearing a mob cap,” says Ann Bay, Mount Vernon’s associate director for education. “She was tiny at about 5 feet tall, and as she got older, she filled out a lot.” But a portrait recently unveiled at Mount Vernon suggests the mother of our country was once a foxy lady. Created using forensic techniques that subtract years from a person’s appearance, the painting reveals what Martha looked like when George fell for her.
What attracted George to Martha remains a mystery because she destroyed their letters when he died, as was the custom of the times. She had been married at 18 to Daniel Custis, a rich planter two decades her senior, and was a 27-yearold widow with two small children when she wed George in 1759, just a few months after they met. Was it love at first sight? Or a marriage of convenience for George to perhaps the richest widow in all the colonies? Adding to the mystery are two letters George wrote during his bachelor days to Sally Fairfax, the wife of his best friend George William Fairfax, hinting at an unrequited love for her. In any case, the image of Martha handed down over the years is one-dimensional: a loyal, unpretentious wife, so devoted to her husband that she joined him during winters at Valley Forge and knit socks for the soldiers.
While researching Martha Washington: An American Life, biographer Patricia Brady wondered what physical charms the young widow possessed when she first turned George’s head. So she sent a miniature watercolor-on-ivory portrait painted by Charles Willson Peale in 1776, when Martha would have been in her 40s, to forensic scientists at the Louisiana State University Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services (FACES) Laboratory, a unit that normally handles age progressions of kidnapped children to indicate how they might appear as teenagers or adults. The lab reversed the process to create an image of Martha at age 27. “I slimmed her, tucked up her lips a bit, narrowed her neck and took off her double chin,” image specialist N. Eileen Barrow says. Brady then asked artist Michael Deas to use the image to create a full body portrait. Deas worked with live models to make the image more lifelike and added a regal gown in purple and gold—the colors of Martha’s wedding attire.
The finished portrait, which is now part of Mount Vernon’s collection, depicts a slim, alluring and self-possessed woman ready to take on the world. “Martha pretty much had everything, compared to George, with his neglected estate and no money,” says Brady. “She married to please herself and she wanted him. He literally stood out from the crowd. He was a wonderful dancer and an incredible horseman, at a time when everyone was a good horseman. I think she decided that, ‘By golly, I’m young, I’m rich, I need to have the man I want and a man I can trust to look after me and my children.’”
Ann Bay says that visitors to Mount Vernon are delighted to see Martha in this new light, which mirrors similar forensic work on view that shows George at different stages of his life. “George Washington was a sharp dresser and thought a lot about what he wore,” she says. “He never would have wanted his wife to be dowdy. And she wasn’t.”
Originally published in the August 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.