What Did The Founding Fathers Look Like? – James Madison

James Madison Reading

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The Real James Madison

With so many variations among paintings, one wonders just what did the Founding Fathers of the United States really look like. When creating my graphic novel about founding father and 4th president James Madison I wanted to have an accurate portrayal of Madison for my book. No photographs of Madison exist, but we do have his life mask showing his exact likeness.

Using Madison’s life mask and Adobe Photoshop, I’ve attempted to create what Madison might have looked like in 1825.
I’ve created two variations, one with his signature comb-over point hairstyle and queue and another with a modern short hair cut. I tried to faithfully reproduce him based on the writings of the time about him.

John Browere’s Life Mask of James Madison

Here we have the life mask of James Madison. Below is a copy that is currently in possession of James Madison’s Montpelier. Fenimore Art Museum currently owns the original. The original mask was created by John Henri Isaac Browere in October 1825 for Madison while he was visiting Montpelier.

James Madison Bust by John Henri Isaac Browere
Source: James Madison’s Montpelier

“My Dear Sir:

Mr. Browere waits on you and Mrs. Madison with the expectation of being permitted to take your portrait busts from the life. As I have a sincere regard for him as a gentleman and a scholar, and great confidence in his skill as an artist (he having made two busts of myself), in the art which he is cultivating, I name him to you with much pleasure as being worthy of your encouragement and patronage. I am interested in having Mr. Browere take your likeness, for I have long been desirous to obtain a perfect one of you. From what I have seen and heard of Mr. Browere’s efforts to copy nature, I hope to receive from his hands that desideratum in a faithful facsimile of my esteemed friend ex-President Madison. Be pleased to present my most respectful regards to Mrs. Madison, and believe me always

Your most devoted friend,

Jacob Brown.”1

“From this introduction Browere seems to have gained the friendship of Mr. and Mrs. Madison, who took more than an ordinary interest in the artist and his family. They were on terms of familiar intercourse, and an infant, born to Mrs. Browere, July 3, 1826, was, by Mrs. Madison’s permission, named for her. Some years later this child accompanied her parents on an extended visit to Montpelier.”

That Madison was satisfied with the result of Browere’s skill is shown by the following:

Per request of Mr. Browere, busts of myself and of my wife, regarded as exact likenesses, have been executed by him in plaister, being casts made from the moulds formed on our persons, of which this certificate is given under my hand at Montpelier, 19, October, 1825.

James Madison.”2

James Madison Comes to Life

Using the bust from the above image, I created an image of Madison as he might have looked in 1825 with his signature pointed comb-over hairstyle. This was a little difficult to create because of the harsh lighting on his face.

James Madison Reading
Background Image Source: American Experience

“In his late 70s Madison was still mentally sharp. In 1828, one visitor found his conversation “a stream of history… so rich in sentiments and facts, so enlivened by anecdotes and epigrammatic remarks, so frank and confidential as to opinions on men and measures, that it had an interest and charm, which the conversation of few men now living, could have.” Physically, Madison’s “little blue eyes sparkled like stars from under his bushy grey eyebrows and amidst the deep wrinkles of his poor thin face” . With age, his complexion became yellowish, and his eyes “blepharitic” 1 (i.e. puffiness around the eyes).”3

Below is the same image with him now looking into the “camera.” Mr. Madison doesn’t look very happy in these images. However, I suppose it’s hard to be pleased when you’re plastered, literally. The drying time for a plaster face cast is approximately 15 minutes and can get warm, so I assume this process was very uncomfortable for him, thus rendering the stern look upon his face.

James Madison Looking at you
Background Image Source: American Experience

Here is the same image with a slight hairstyle change. I used this hairstyle for the “fictional character” of James Madison in my graphic novel.

James Madison Reading
Background Image Source: American Experience

These three images show a closer view of his face with some Photoshop tweaking to his eyes. Unfortunately, the original photo of the life mask does not afford me the quality nor the detail I genuinely need to work with. Hopefully, in the future, I will be able to get quality high-resolution images of this life mask and do justice to the face of my 2nd favorite president. Until then, these images give us a good indication of how he looked.

Three Faces of James Madison

Below, another view of the Browere Madison mask.

James Madison LIfe Mask
Source: Project Gutenberg, public domain

Here is the mask from the image above with skin, hair and bodies added with Photoshop.

Two instances of James Madison life mask colorized and placed on a body

The Life Mask Face of James Madison – A Photoshop Reconstruction

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Sources & References:
1,2 Charles Henry Hart. “The Project Gutenberg EBook of Browere’s Life Masks of Great Americans” https://www.gutenberg.org/files/51890/51890-h/51890-h.htm
3Doctor Zebra. “Health and Medical History of President James Madisonhttp://www.doctorzebra.com/prez/g04.htm

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