George Washington stares down from the famous Gilbert Stuart painting in the San Marino gallery. Weary looking at 63 years old and pursing his lips over ill-fitting but, no, not wooden, false teeth, he is frozen over two centuries as the austere father of his country.
This is also the white-haired Washington seen on the dollar bill. This is the Washington whose image is parodied to sell mattresses and refrigerators during celebrations for his 266th birthday on Feb. 22. This is the Washington whose name was stripped from a predominantly black elementary school in New Orleans last fall because he was a slave-owner - albeit a rare 18th-century Virginia planter who arranged to free his slaves after his death.
There’s no way around it: “Washington here looks like the embodiment of the ultimate dead, white male,” said John Rhodehamel, a curator at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, in the wealthy Los Angeles suburb of San Marino, gesturing toward one of the copies Stuart made of the 1795 pose.
But Rhodehamel and many other scholars and boosters of Washington are preparing a counterrevolution on the first president’s behalf. With next year’s 200th anniversary of Washington’s death as a focal point, they hope to use a host of museum shows, university conferences and public events to spin a more compelling image of Washington, and win back the attention and affection he has lost over the past several generations to the more human- and modern-seeming Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Historians say the need to dust off Washington has become increasingly apparent. For many years, modern historians’ ratings of presidents regularly ranked Washington second, just after Lincoln. Then in 1982, a new survey pushed Franklin Roosevelt into second place, with Washington third, Jefferson fourth and Theodore Roosevelt fifth.
The number of visitors to Mount Vernon, Washington’s Virginia plantation home and burial place on the Potomac, reached a peak of 1.3 million in 1964. Attendance dropped over the next three decades to about 940,000 before climbing a bit over a million this year. Meanwhile, James Rees, the director of Mount Vernon, ruefully notes that the number of visitors to Elvis Presley’s Graceland house in Memphis, Tenn., is pulling up fast, with 700,000 tourists last year.
“There is no question he is pretty remote. He’s gotten buried under a lot of the history in the last 100 years and he’s a victim of his own wellpublicized virtues,” explained Rhodehamel, who is curator of “The Great Experiment: George Washington and the American Republic,” the Huntington’s show of rare documents and artifacts set to open in October.
“Washington was a revolutionary,” he pointed out, “even though he doesn’t look like Che Guevera.”
During the Revolution, Gen. Washington lost more battles than he won. Still, he was the hero of his generation for holding together the Continental Army through eight years of defeats, disease and shortages. “His genius was in keeping the cause alive. It was that endurance that made him, even at that time, a legend,” explained Richard Norton Smith, a Washington biographer who is now director of the Gerald Ford Presidential Presidential Museum and Library in Grand Rapids, Mich.
At one point, Mount Vernon conducted focus groups and discovered Americans knew few details about Washington. “And some, more than I would like, thought he was boring,” Rees recalls.
Art historian and Washington expert Barbara Mitnick of New Jersey said she “would like people to think of him as a very vital person, an incredibly active person who rejected the title of king.”
She and others do not seek to hide Washington’s flaws but want them judged in the context of their time.