Lines and Colors art blog

Reconstructing Martha Washington

Martha Washington, Michael Deas, Charles Wilson Peale, James Peale
It’s President’s Day here in the U.S., and though it’s nice to contemplate the changes that will hopefully come from the presence of a new and very different president, the holiday is dedicated to past presidents, most specifically the first U.S. president, George Washington, whose birthday the holiday marks and was originally named for.

Our picture of Washington, like most figures from his time, is based on artists’ portraits; in the case of Washington, most notably the famous portraits by Gilbert Stuart.

The wives of presidents were also the subject of official portraits, which are likewise the source of our image of them. This view is always limited by the timeframe of the portraits, which were usually commissioned while the president was in office, or even posthumously, Consequently, our image of these figures is often of individuals in their advanced age, as there is often no portrait recording their appearance in their youth.

Such is the case of Martha Washington, George Washington’s wife, whose visage we know from the portraits Charles Wilson Peale (image above, lower left), and his younger brother James Peale (above, bottom center) as well as an unfinished portrait by Gilbert Stuart.

Author Patricia Brady, in the course of researching her fresh historic look at the original First Lady, Martha Washington: An American Life (more detail here), asked forensic anthropologists at the Louisiana State University Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services (FACES) Laboratory, who often do computerized age progressions (for instance, to determine what kidnapped children might look like as they get older), to do a computerized age regression of Martha Washington; based on the watercolor on ivory portrait by James Peale (above, bottom, center), which her grandchildren reported was a “striking likeness”.

By comparing bone structure, facial dimensions and proportions of features, the lab was able to produce an image of her likely appearance in her twenties.

The result was then used as a basis for a new portrait by illustrator Michael J. Deas, who has painted other portraits of historical figures from U.S. history; giving us a new image of Martha Washington as a vibrant, strikingly attractive young woman on the eve of her wedding (image above, lower right, with detail at top).

This image was subsequently used as the cover of Brady’s book, and prints of the image can be ordered from Deas’ web site.

Deas has shown her in a reconstruction of her wedding dress, and in a pose that she might have been asked to take for a painter of her time.

Here we see an image of the slim, charming, and strong young woman who ran five plantations after the death of her first husband, bargained with merchants, haggled over tobacco prices and followed her new husband into battle, and of whom patriot, soldier and future first president George Washington was deeply enamored.


13 responses to “Reconstructing Martha Washington”

  1. Wow, that’s a beautiful portrait! I didn’t know this illustrator yet (and he painted the columbia pictures logo!)

  2. That’s a really nice portrait, but I find it kind of humorous how they made her look pretty hot in a ’21st Century’ sort of way. For other examples, see: the progression of Betty Crocker over the decades, and the hotification of Th. Jefferson over the years on our bills and coins.

  3. I really enjoyed the post, very fascinating. The illustration makes me want to read the book.

  4. Peggy Feltmate Avatar
    Peggy Feltmate

    What a beautiful post! Thank you!

  5. Michael has long been a favorite of mine. I’ve enjoyed his postage stamps and book covers for a long time.

  6. That is beautiful portrait. I often find it interesting when I meet a dynamic older person, what they might have looked like in youth. What a great painting, and concept bringing Martha back in her prime.

  7. This is a fascinating post and I have the greatest admiration for Deas’s work as an artist. (His Thornton Wilder portratit for the US Postal service is absolutely exquisite.)

    BUT… it seems particularly odd, one might even say disingenuous, for anyone to claim the need for such “forensic portraiture” since, contrary to what you say in this post, we DO, in fact, have imagery portraying Martha Washington before she married the father of our country and decades before she became first lady.

    Washington and Lee University has a portrait of “the young widow Custis” (their characterization, not mine) painted a couple of years before she married George and you can see it online at

    I suspect that the more honest motivation to have Deas do this demure and alluring youthful portrait has a great deal more to do with the fact that the 18th century concept of who looked ‘hot’ doesn’t translate so well to our own era, and perceptions. Deas’ work, when compared to the early portrait, does indeed seem to be an image defineitely filtered through the aesthetics of our own time.

  8. Great comment, Daniel. It’s fascinating to compare the real portraits with the ‘fake’. Also interesting to compare the two different takes on the ‘relaxed’ pose.

  9. very fantastic work

  10. I saw this portrait in Mount Vernon today. What a pleasure to see her painted so young, and beautiful.

  11. I need help drawing Martha Washington plz