Our image of the mother of our country, vague and insubstantial as it is, is drawn from portraits painted after her death showing a frumpy, dumpy, plump old lady, a fussy jumble of needlework in her lap, wearing what could pass for a shower cap with pink sponge rollers rolled too tight underneath.
But today, 250 years after Martha and George tied the knot, a handful of historians are seeking to revamp the former first lady’s fusty image, using the few surviving records of things she wrote, asking forensic anthropologists to do a computerized age-regression portrait of her in her mid-20s and, perhaps most importantly, displaying for the first time in decades the avant-garde deep purple silk high heels studded with silver sequins that she wore on her wedding day.
Far be it from me to complain about a smidgen of revisionism, but then again, why do we remember her as Frumpy McFrumpstein?
[E]ach generation of Americans … has played its part in solidifying Martha’s stodgy image, transforming her into an icon of demure Victorian perfection in the 19th century and, in the antiheroic 20th century, the mousy, fat, rich widow that dashing and virile Washington married only for money.
Emily Shapiro, a curator at Mount Vernon, wandered through the museum on a recent day, pointing to the most famous images of Martha. All of them are, as one historian describes it, of the double-chinned Old Mother Hubbard variety. To Shapiro, the white-haired images, painted shortly after both George and Martha had died, served to foster a sense of legitimacy for the fledgling country. “The country was still so young,” she said. “I think it was reassuring to see its leaders as older, distinguished, stately and gray-haired people.”
I hope we’re over that sort of thing; I wouldn’t want 23rd-century kids to think Michelle Obama was a dead ringer for Aunt Jemima.