The True George Washington: Physique

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff


Contemporary Descriptions

Writing to his London tailor for clothes, in 1763, Washington directed him to "take measure of a gentleman who wares well-made cloaths of the following size: to wit, 6 feet high and proportionably made?if anything rather slender than thick, for a person of that highth, with pretty long arms and thighs. You will take care to make the breeches longer than those you sent me last, and I would have you keep the measure of the cloaths you now make, by you, and if any alteration is required in my next it shall be pointed out." About this time, too, he ordered "6 pr. Man's riding Gloves?rather large than the middle size,"... and several dozen pairs of stockings, "to be long, and tolerably large."

The earliest known description of Washington was written in 1760 by his companion-in-arms and friend George Mercer, who attempted a "portraiture" in the following words: "He may be described as being as straight as an Indian, measuring six feet two inches in his stockings, and weighing 175 pounds when he took his seat in the House of Burgesses in 1759. His frame is padded with well-developed muscles, indicating great strength. His bones and joints are large, as are his feet and hands. He is wide shouldered, but has not a deep or round chest; is neat waisted, but is broad across the hips, and has rather long legs and arms. His head is well shaped though not large, but is gracefully poised on a superb neck. A large and straight rather than prominent nose; blue-gray penetrating eyes, which are widely separated and overhung by a heavy brow. His face is long rather than broad, with high round cheek bones, and terminates in a good firm chin. He has a clear though rather a colorless pale skin, which burns with the sun. A pleasing, benevolent, though a commanding countenance, dark brown hair, which he wears in a cue. His mouth is large and generally firmly closed, but which from time to time discloses some defective teeth. His features are regular and placid, with all the muscles of his face under perfect control, though flexible and expressive of deep feeling when moved by emotion. In conversation he looks you full in the face, is deliberate, deferential and engaging. His voice is agreeable rather than strong. His demeanor at all times composed and dignified. His movements and gestures are graceful, his walk majestic, and he is a splendid horseman."

Dr. James Thacher, writing in 1778, depicted him as "remarkably tall, full six feet, erect and well proportioned. The strength and proportion of his joints and muscles, appear to be commensurate with the pre-eminent powers of his mind. The serenity of his countenance, and majestic gracefulness of his deportment, impart a strong impression of that dignity and grandeur, which are his peculiar characteristics, and no one can stand in his presence without feeling the ascendancy of his mind, and associating with his countenance the idea of wisdom, philanthropy, magnanimity and patriotism. There is a fine symmetry in the features of his face, indicative of a benign and dignified spirit. His nose is straight, and his eye inclined to blue. He wears his hair in a becoming cue, and from his forehead it is turned back and powdered in a manner which adds to the military air of his appearance. He displays a native gravity, but devoid of all appearance of ostentation." In this same year a friend wrote, "General Washington is now in the forty-seventh year of his age; he is a well-made man, rather large boned, and has a tolerably genteel address; his features are manly and bold, his eyes of a bluish cast and very lively; his hair a deep brown, his face rather long and marked with the small-pox; his complexion sunburnt and without much color, and his countenance sensible, composed and thoughtful; there is a remarkable air of dignity about him, with a striking degree of gracefulness."

In 1789 Senator Maclay saw "him as he really is. In stature about six feet, with an unexceptionable make, but lax appearance. His frame would seem to want filling up. His motions rather slow than lively, though he showed no signs of having suffered by gout or rheumatism. His complexion pale, nay, almost cadaverous. His voice hollow and indistinct, owing, as I believe, to artificial teeth before his upper jaw, which occasions a flatness."

From frequent opportunity of seeing Washington between 1794 and 1797, William Sullivan described him as "over six feet in stature; of strong, bony, muscular frame, without fullness of covering, well-formed and straight. He was a man of most extraordinary strength. In his own house, his action was calm, deliberate, and dignified, without pretension to gracefulness, or peculiar manner, but merely natural, and such as one would think it should be in such a man. When walking in the street, his movement had not the soldierly air which might be expected. His habitual motions had been formed, long before he took command of the American Armies, in the wars of the interior and in the surveying of wilderness lands, employments in which grace and elegance were not likely to be acquired. At the age of sixty-five, time had done nothing towards bending him out of his natural erectness. His deportment was invariably grave; it was sobriety that stopped short of sadness."

The French officers and travellers supply other descriptions. The Abb Robin found him of "tall and noble stature, well proportioned, a fine, cheerful, open countenance, a simple and modest carriage; and his whole mien has something in it that interests the French, the Americans, and even enemies themselves in his favor."

The Marquis de Chastellux wrote enthusiastically, "In speaking of this perfect whole of which General Washington furnishes the idea, I have not excluded exterior form. His stature is noble and lofty, he is well made, and exactly proportionate; his physiognomy mild and agreeable, but such as to render it impossible to speak particularly of any of his features, so that in quitting him you have only the recollection of a fine face. He has neither a grave nor a familiar face, his brow is sometimes marked with thought, but never with inquietude; in inspiring respect he inspires confidence, and his smile is always the smile of benevolence."

To this description, however, Brissot de Warville took exception, and supplied his own picture by writing in 1791, "You have often heard me blame M. Chastellux for putting too much sprightliness in the character he has drawn of this general. To give pretensions to the portrait of a man who has none is truly absurd. The General's goodness appears in his looks. They have nothing of that brilliancy which his officers found in them when he was at the head of his army; but in conversation they become animated. He has no characteristic traits in his figure, and this has rendered it always so difficult to describe it: there are few portraits which resemble him. All his answers are pertinent; he shows the utmost reserve, and is very diffident; but, at the same time, he is firm and unchangeable in whatever he undertakes. His modesty must be very astonishing, especially to a Frenchman."

British travellers have left a number of pen-portraits. An anonymous writer in 1790 declared that in meeting him "it was not necessary to announce his name, for his peculiar appearance, his firm forehead, Roman nose, and a projection of the lower jaw, his height and figure, could not be mistaken by any one who had seen a full-length picture of him, and yet no picture accurately resembled him in the minute traits of his person. His features, however, were so marked by prominent characteristics, which appear in all likenesses of him, that a stranger could not be mistaken in the man; he was remarkably dignified in his manners, and had an air of benignity over his features which his visitant did not expect, being rather prepared for sternness of countenance.... his smile was extraordinarily attractive. It was observed to me that there was an expression in Washington's face that no painter had succeeded in taking. It struck me no man could be better formed for command. A stature of six feet, a robust, but well-proportioned frame, calculated to sustain fatigue, without that heaviness which generally attends great muscular strength, and abates active exertion, displayed bodily power of no mean standard. A light eye and full?the very eye of genius and reflection rather than of blind passionate impulse. His nose appeared thick, and though it befitted his other features, was too coarsely and strongly formed to be the handsomest of its class. His mouth was like no other that I ever saw; the lips firm and the under jaw seeming to grasp the upper with force, as if its muscles were in full action when he sat still."

Two years later, an English diplomat wrote of him, "His person is tall and sufficiently graceful; his face well formed, his complexion rather pale, with a mild philosophic gravity in the expression of it In his air and manner he displays much natural dignity; in his address he is cold, reserved, and even phlegmatic, though without the least appearance of haughtiness or ill-nature; it is the effect, I imagine, of constitutional diffidence. That caution and circumspection which form so striking and well known a feature in his military, and, indeed, in his political character, is very strongly marked in his countenance, for his eyes retire inward (do you understand me?) and have nothing of fire of animation or openness in their expression."

Wansey, who visited Mount Vernon in 1795, portrayed "The President in his person" as "tall and thin, but erect; rather of an engaging than a dignified presence. He appears very thoughtful, is slow in delivering himself, which occasions some to conclude him reserved, but it is rather, I apprehend, the effect of much thinking and reflection, for there is great appearance to me of affability and accommodation. He was at this time in his sixty-third year ... but he has very little the appearance of age, having been all his life long so exceeding temperate."

In 1797, Weld wrote, "his chest is full; and his limbs, though rather slender, well shaped and muscular. His head is small, in which respect he resembles the make of a great number of his countrymen. His eyes are of a light grey colour; and in proportion to the length of his face, his nose is long. Mr. Stewart, the eminent portrait painter, told me, that there were features in his face totally different from what he ever observed in that of any other human being; the sockets for the eyes, for instance, are larger than what he ever met with before, and the upper part of the nose broader. All his features, he observed, were indicative of the strongest and most ungovernable passions, and had he been born in the forests, it was his opinion that he would have been the fiercest man among the savage tribes."

Other and briefer descriptions contain a few phrases worth quoting. Samuel Sterns said, "His countenance commonly carries the impression of a serious cast;" Maclay, that "the President seemed to bear in his countenance a settled aspect of melancholy;" and the Prince de Broglie wrote, "His pensive eyes seem more attentive than sparkling, but their expression is benevolent, noble and self-possessed." Silas Deane in 1775 said he had "a very young look and an easy soldier-like air and gesture," and in the same year Curwen mentioned his "fine figure" and "easy and agreeable address." Nathaniel Lawrence noted in 1783 that "the General weighs commonly about 210 pounds." After death, Lear reports that "Doctor Dick measured the body, which was as follows?In length 6 ft. 3-1/2 inches exact. Across the shoulders 1.9. Across the elbows 2.1." The pleasantest description is Jefferson's: "His person, you know, was fine, his stature exactly what one would wish, his deportment easy, erect and noble."

Sources +
See also: