What did Founding Fathers Look Like?
“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,
Life mask of James Madison Source: Cheryl A. Daniel, with special thanks to Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown N.Y.
“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:
J. I. Browere’s 1825 life masks of James Madison Source: Cheryl A. Daniel, with special thanks to Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown N.Y.
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.
Using Madison’s life mask and Adobe Photoshop, I’ve attempted to create what Madison might have looked like in 1825, with his blue eyes, bushy eyebrows and signature “widow’s peak” comb-over.
Photoshop reconstruction of James Madison's life mask, reflecting his small framed 110 lb. body.
“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” (i.e. puffiness around the eyes).”3
J. I. Browere’s “work achieved a stark realism uncommon in that day. His plaster busts showed the age-lined brow, the pock-marked face; his subjects appeared as they were, not as artists generally portrayed them. His life masks were, and remain, the most authentic likenesses of some historic figures who lived in a day before photography provided more easily obtained but similarly uncompromising portraits.”4
Enhanced Photoshop reconstruction of James Madison's life mask with facial expression change.
The novelist Washington Irving described James Madison as "but a withered little apple-John." One congressional wife dismissed Madison as a "gloomy, stiff creature . . . who has nothing engaging or even bearable in his manners – the most unsociable creature in existence."5
"James Madison's official portraits reinforce a sober image. Madison gazes levelly out of the canvas, virtually daring the viewer to try to make him crack a grin."6 But.....the private Mr. Madison was much different!
De-aged reconstructed life mask of James Madison, age 32 with powdered white hair. See more at The Young Face of James Madison - Life Mask De-aged.
One dinner guest reported that James spent the hour after the meal passing around different vintages “of no mean quality.” Through most mealtimes, he maintained a steady stream of anecdotes and stories.7
Friends relished his wicked sense of humor. His conversation, one niece recalled, moved “from brilliant mirth through to brilliant mirth.” A British diplomat found him a “jovial and good-humored companion.” Another source called James “an incessant humorist” who “set his table guests daily into roars of laughter over his stories and whimsical ways of telling them.”8
He was also known to tell and enjoy a dirty joke or two.
Profile view of James Madison's life mask. Source: James Madison, 1825, John Henri Isaac Browere (1790-1834), Plaster, H: 28.5 x W: 21 x D: 11.5 in. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Stephen C. Clark, N0244.1940. Photograph by Richard Walker. Used By Permission
Photoshop reconstruction of James Madison's profile life mask.
Based upon their life masks, Dolley and James Madison standing in the drawing room at their Montpelier home in Orange County, Virginia.
James Madison Video
Prints and Postcards
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
3 Doctor Zebra. “Health and Medical History of President James Madison” http://www.doctorzebra.com/prez/g04.htm
4 Donald B. Webster, Jr. “The Day Jefferson Got Plastered” American Heritage (1963) https://www.americanheritage.com/day-jefferson-got-plastered
5,6,7,8 David O. Stewart. “The Surprising Raucous Home Life of the Madisons" https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/surprising-raucous-home-life-madisons-180954205/