Monday, September 28, 2009

Houdon in Hastings: The Life Mask of George Washington

As soon as we had finished writing the previous week’s post on Jean-Antoine Houdon’s bust of Robert Fulton in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we realized that that eminent French sculptor is actually represented in Hastings, in our own collection.

In our small but select library, in a glass case, is a copy of the life mask that Houdon made of George Washington in 1785. At the time, Houdon was working on a commission for the Virginia Legislature. Two years previously, America, France, and England had signed the peace treaty that finally ended the Revolutionary War, and General George Washington had retired as commander of the Continental Army and returned to private life. The Virginia Legislature decided to honor Washington for his courage and patriotism with a full-length marble statue that would stand in the capitol building in Richmond. The governor asked Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, the United States’ ambassadors in Paris, to suggest the best artist for the commission. They both recommended Houdon. “I find that a Monsieur Houdon of this place possesses the reputation of being the first statuary in the world,” wrote Jefferson, using a term for a ‘sculptor’ that has since gone out of fashion.

Houdon was delighted with the commission, which he considered the most important of his career. The American artist Charles Wilson Peale painted a portrait of Washington and this was sent to Houdon as a guide for his work. But Houdon insisted on taking Washington’s image from life. He accompanied Franklin back to the United States and arrived at Washington’s Mount Vernon residence in October of 1785. During his two-week stay, Houdon followed Washington around, observing his posture and expression. He also took detailed measurements of his body and created the life mask to serve as a model for Washington’s face. He applied grease to Washington’s skin, put quills in his nostrils so he could breathe, and then covered his face with wet plaster. This impression created a mould that, once dried, could itself be filled with plaster to create a positive image of Washington’s face. Because Washington necessarily had his eyes closed, Houdon had to hollow out the pupils of the plaster mask to give the face a life-like expression.

Houdon took the mask back to Paris with him and used it to create the likeness of the final statue, which was erected in Richmond in 1796. Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette, and many of Washington’s relatives praised the statue as the most lifelike representation of Washington that had ever been made. By 1796, General Washington had become President Washington, and was just finishing his second term. He had become, if possible, even more famous than he had been in the 1780s, and Houdon’s statue drew national attention.

The mask itself was prized as the most authentic likeness of America’s first president. In order to make the positive mask, the mould had to be broken, so only one mask was ever made from the original mould. This mask is now in the collection of the Morgan Library in New York City, most likely purchased by financier and art collector J.P. Morgan on one of his many trips to Europe.

Ours is but a humble copy, made at least a century later. It was on display here in the Draper Observatory Cottage in the 1950s when the cottage housed a public reading room, but it certainly may have been purchased long before, probably by one of the Draper family. The round plaster pedestal that is part of the mask is unusual and may someday help us identify when and where our copy was made. Masks and busts of famous men and women were popular library accessories at the turn of the century, and there are many copies of Washington’s mask in libraries around the United States. In fact, you can still buy one today -- on eBay.

The Draper Reading Room as it appeared ca. 1950. Washington's mask is not visible in the picture. It may have been where it is now, in the Transit Room, which you can see through the doorway in the center of the photograph.

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