Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Many Faces of George Washington

The Many Faces of George Washington: Remaking a Presidential Icon
by Carla Killough McClafferty
120 pages
Carolrhoda Books

Publisher's description:

"No picture accurately resembled him in the minute traits of his person . . . there was an expression of his face that no painter had succeeded in taking." --London's New Monthly Magazine (1790). George Washington's face has been painted, printed, and engraved more than a billion times since his birth in 1732. And yet even in his lifetime, no picture seemed to capture the likeness of the man who is now the most iconic of all our presidents. Worse still, people today often see this founding father as the "old and grumpy" Washington on the dollar bill. In 2005 a team of historians, scientists, and artisans at Mount Vernon set out to change the image of our first president. They studied paintings and sculptures, pored over Washington's letters to his tailors and noted other people's comments about his appearance, even closely examined the many sets of dentures that had been created for Washington. Researchers tapped into skills as diverse as 18th-century leatherworking and cutting-edge computer programming to assemble truer likenesses. Their painstaking research and exacting processes helped create three full-body representations of Washington as he was at key moments in his life. And all along the way, the team gained new insight into a man who was anything but "old and grumpy." Join award-winning author Carla Killough McClafferty as she unveils the statues of the three Georges and rediscovers the man who became the face of a new nation.

My Comments:

McClafferty tells duel stories with her book: the fascinating modern process of creating lifelike figures of Washington, and Washington's own life story. The art and science of the modern "Bones-ish" storyline are what initially attracted me to the book.

The three new likenesses of Washington are all based off of the work done by Jean-Antoine Houdon. The French sculptor visited Washington in his home to create a plaster life mask. Washington posed for Houdon at age 53, so it took scientists and artists a lot of work to accurately depict him at ages 19, 45 and 57. Many color photographs of the creation process are included, along with captions that provide additional information about how it’s done. A great deal of care went into details like his hair, eyes and clothing. Washington was known for being an excellent horseman, so it's fitting that his horse, Blueskin, was also recreated to go along with his 45-year old figure.

McClafferty's rendition of Washington's life focuses on exciting incidents, such as young Washington's role in the French and Indian War and middle-aged Washington's role in the American revolution. Photographs of Mount Vernon and other important historical sites such as Fort Necessity are plentiful, and well-captioned. The history sections are well-written overall, but I found one erroneous date (on page 35) that muddles the story. In the middle of a section on Washington's time spent with General Braddock in 1755, the text suddenly claims that he fell ill on June 14, 1754.

The design of the book is very attractive. The trim size is very similar to Houghton Mifflin's "Scientists in the Field" series, and the look and feel of the pages is typical of National Geographic's work. Dark red text boxes and bars contrast nicely with off-white backgrounds. The text is divided into two columns, and the font that's used is not quite so big as to seem childish.

Back end materials include a note from the author, a very useful George Washington timeline, source notes, a bibliography, further reading and an index. The note thanks many of the people involved in the creation of the statues who shared their insights with McClafferty. To research the book, she spent time at Mount Vernon and the studio where Washington's likenesses are "freshened" each year. The source notes are not very useful because they are not individually numbered. Only page numbers are included, so that you have to guess at what portion of the text the note is referring to. The bibliography is extensive, and includes books, articles, primary sources, interviews, a couple of DVDs and even a master's thesis on Washington's dental history. The further reading section includes several websites.

A little text box on page 117 promotes complementary educational resources available through the publisher's website: What the text box doesn't tell you is that you must register with Lerner in order to access the downloadable materials. Fortunately, registration is free. The downloadables turned out to be nothing too exciting: a list of some additional websites, a journal assignment for anyone wishing to burden young readers with homework and a photo slideshow. Okay, the slideshow is pretty cool.

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