Assistant Education Coordinator
Often, visitors to Gunston Hall will ask our guides and docents “What exactly did George Mason look like?” Unlike some of his Founding Father contemporaries, we can count the life images of George Mason on the finger of, well, on the finger of one finger. And that “original” portrait is a copy of the original. And physical descriptions of the man are nearly as rare.
In the fall and winter of 1775, Mason must have looked horrible. Lund Washington, George Washington’s cousin and caretaker of Mount Vernon during the Revolution, wrote to his cousin, “Colonel Mason has been sick ever since he came from the Convention. He looks very badly and he is quite worn out in appearance ….I wish he was well; we want him much and shall miss him if it pleases God to take him out of this world.” He must have looked like death was about to take him, and this was before he had accomplished most of what we remember him for.
In the spring of ’76 Mason himself described his ailment to Richard Henry Lee as “a sharp fit of the gout.” It was that gout that made him late for the next Virginia Convention, the momentous Convention of 1776. From “we shall miss him if it pleases God to take him” to this:
“Mason…had attained his fiftieth year, and though his once raven locks were touched with grey, and he had just recovered from a smart shock of an hereditary disease, appeared in the vigor of manhood.”
This is the beginning of a description of George Mason of Gunston Hall as he appeared to his fellow delegates at the Virginia Convention of 1776. Mason was described by Hugh Blair Grigsby in an address delivered to the Phi Beta Kappa society at William and Mary College in 1855. Grigsby, a Virginia statesman and historical scholar was born in 1806, long after George Mason’s death, yet his description of him seems quite life-like and detailed, almost as though Grigsby had met Mason.
While Grigsby gives no sources for his description, he himself had been a representative to the Virginia Convention of 1829-1830 when he was 25. Also serving at that Convention was a 78-year-old who had served with Mason at that momentous Convention of 1776. His name was James Madison. Perhaps some of Grigsby’s description had come from Madison.
Grisgby’s description certainly had detail. “He was nearly six feet high, of a large and sinewy frame, and an active step and gait. The love of his gun and of the sports of the field kept his limbs in fine play.” Just “love of his gun”; Grigsby doesn’t perpetuate here the old Mason family story that Col. Mason was such a fine shot that he once killed two deer with one shot.
Exposure had deepened the tints of a light brown complexion; and it was impossible to behold his athletic form and his grave face lighted up by a black eye which burned with the brightness of youth, without a feeling of respect approaching to awe. His bearing was in the highest degree courteous but lofty, and he seemed at first sight to belong to that class of which Washington and Andrew Lewis were members—men of such high and noble qualities and of such august presence as rather to command the admiration of the beholder than to quicken the gentler feelings of affection and love. Yet no man was more sensible of the warmest emotions of friendship, as I have heard from those who knew him, and as his letters to his contemporaries strikingly show.Grigsby had seen a portrait of George Mason, “His portrait, which long adorned the hospitable mansion of Analosta, may still be seen at Clermont [home of George Mason’s son, John]. As you look upon it, you perceive that his dark eyes have that peculiar expression, half sad, half severe, which is seen in the eyes of the the painter Giotto, the shepherd boy, whom Cimabue found in the recesses of the Alps tending sheep, and who, when like Mason, he was summoned from his forest home, like Mason, made an era in the history of his art.”
Certainly this descriptor will aid our docents, as they explain to visiting fourth graders that George Mason looked like the “painter Giotto, the shepherd boy, whom Cimabue found in the recesses of the Alps.”
Was this portrait one of the aforementioned 1811 Dominic W. Boudet copies of the 1750 marriage portrait of Mason originally painted by John Hesselius? This is the only life image known to exist of Mason. But was it the only one that ever existed?
Another Virginia historian and scholar, John Esten Cooke, writing an article titled “Gunston Hall” in the April 4, 1874, issue of Appleton’s Journal, gives a description of a portrait of George Mason that is most assuredly not the wedding portrait displayed today at Gunston Hall and on the cover of nearly every biography of the man. He describes that portrait first “man of thirty,” “fine lace cuff,” “hand thrust into an opening in the waistcoat,” “taken, it is said, soon after his marriage.” That familiar portrait was, he says, at “Selma, the residence of the late Sen. Mason.” Presumably, this is Sen. James Murray Mason, son of John Mason.
The other portrait was painted “when he was older and thus of more historic value, it is also said to be a better likeness.” Exactly who said that 80 years after Mason’s death is uncertain. This portrait, that he calls “the Clermont picture” is of a middle-aged man with a “proud and composed bearing, a face browned by sun and wind and dark eyes, characterized by an expression half sad, half severe.” If those last four words sound familiar re-read Grigsby’s words above, before he waxes poetic about an Italian Renaissance painter.
Surely, this is a different painting than the one we are used to seeing. And just where and when did John Esten Cooke see this portrait he describes in 1874? Clermont left the Mason family after John Mason’s death in 1849, when Cooke would have been barely 19. After being used as a smallpox hospital by Union troops during the Civil War, the house was burned to the ground to prevent the spread of the disease. Could the portrait still have been in the house, long after it was vacated by the Masons? Cooke certainly didn’t see it during the war, not only because of the smallpox threat, but because he was fighting for the Confederacy.
Cooke’s description of Mason continues. “In face and figure the man has been described as ‘tall, muscular and swarthy.’ There is…something dark, massive and earnest, about the individual represented in this portrait. The face is not an unamiable one, but earnestness is a marked characteristic of it….”
Today, we are left with copies of a life portrait, tantalizing memories of another, and a few busts and statues carved long after Mason was gone.
Swarthy? Half sad, half severe? On death’s doorstep? The eyes of Giotto? All of the above?
We’ll keep researching for you.
Cooke, John E. Appletons' Journal. “Gunston Hall.” Google Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2015. <https://books.google.com/books?id=VXzQAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA417&dq=appletons%2Bjournal%2B1874&hl=en&sa=X&ei=kwjJVJzwDsTmsATFpoLIBQ&ved=0CB8Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=appletons%20journal%201874&f=false>.
Grigsby, Hugh Blair. The Virginia Convention of 1776 a Discourse Delivered before the Virginia Alpha of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, in the Chapel of William and Mary College, in the City of Williamsburg, on the Afternoon of July the 3rd, 1855. Richmond: J.W. Randolph, 1855. Print.
Rutland, Robert A., ed. The Papers of George Mason 1725-1792. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 1970.