A new exhibition on George Washington fills in many gaps about the personal life of our first president. 

The Man Behind the Myths

"Treasures from Mount Vernon: George Washington Revealed"
Virginia Historical Society
Through Sept. 19
$4, $3 seniors, $2 children and students

For good or ill, media-age presidents have been photographed routinely in relaxed moments. What better captured FDR than shots of him grinning confidently with a cigarette clamped between his teeth? Or pictures of Jimmy Carter's toothy smile that betrayed a steely determination?

George Washington's life, of course, predated cameras: He died in 1799. And no portrait painter dared to depict the revered father of our country with lips apart. He is always shown stalwart and determined, even grim. Therefore, it is startling to wander through the elegant, softly lit galleries of the Virginia Historical Society and be confronted by the first president's false teeth — brownish stains and all, for heaven's sake, under carefully set lighting in a custom-made display case. Bizarre.

If a mummy was included to add crowd appeal to the highly touted Egyptian exhibition nearby at the Virginia Museum, these antiquarian choppers will surely be a show-stopper at "Treasures from Mount Vernon: George Washington Revealed."

And if the exhibition's major aim is to de-mythicize the surveyor, soldier, gentleman-farmer and national founding political figure — to pull him off the dollar bill — this show succeeds. On the 200th anniversary of his death, the keepers of his beloved Mount Vernon, with support from Ford Motor Co., have mounted a handsome touring exhibition, rich with spectacular furniture, clothing, personal effects, maps, letters and period pictures. The selection of objects pulled from collections at Washington's Potomac River home and other collections, remains on view through Sept. 19.

Washington, as the exquisite and exhaustive companion exhibition sponsored by the historical society, "The Man Behind the Myth," makes clear, was determined to create a solid life and sophisticated lifestyle for himself and his family although he spent much of his youth fatherless, never took the grand tour of Europe or acquired a higher education. He gained early political clout through a knowledge of his native Virginia he acquired through surveying. He established financial security by marrying a wealthy widow. And he quickly rose to military heights and gained leadership positions in the fledgling Federal government through personal sacrifice and focused dedication.

The exhibition's six sections follow his progress. For starters, "The Presence of Washington" includes clothing worn by Washington (he was tall), portraits by Charles Willson Peale we've all seen published in history books and that orthodontic wonder. The "Venturing Forth" section traces his career as a surveyor and military commander on the frontier and closer to home. "Assuming Command" includes an actual-scale replica of the tent used by Washington during the Revolution. It is complete with camp tableware and an ingeniously designed, four-poster portable bed.

"The Pleasure of His Company" introduces the visitor to his marriage to Martha Washington through letters, her wedding slippers and family likenesses. "On His Own Farm" explores Washington as farmer at Mount Vernon. Finally, "Getting a Touch of Him" traces the myths that quickly grew up around the first president even before his death (a topic that the companion exhibition also develops effectively).

A bonus of this elegant experience is "Mount Vernon in Miniature," a 1-inch to 1- foot replica of his plantation house. In a time of virtual reality, there's still nothing quite as mesmerizing as well-executed scale models. Displayed on a lower level of the society building, this 10-by-8 foot model is mechanized so that floors and the roof rise and fall to reveal maniacally detailed furnishings and architectural detailing.

This summer as usual, Americans are flocking to Europe to see the treasures from the old country. But those who have stayed at home could do worse than visit the Boulevard to discover, observe and contemplate some relics of the New World. These objects not only fill in many gaps about the personal life of an all-but-sanctified American man, but are handsome as works of craft and art in their own


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