J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, March 18, 2019

New Findings about an Old Portrait

Earlier this month Craig LaBan reported for the Philadelphia newspapers on the portrait shown here.

In recent decades this been widely identified as showing Hercules, a cook enslaved by President George Washington. Hercules achieved high status in the Mount Vernon workforce, but then he secured his freedom by leaving in 1797.

The painting has been attributed to Gilbert Stuart, apparently because he’s the most famous painter known to have painted the Washingtons around that time.

One detail which should have made people wonder, I think, is that this painting is at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. An odd place to find an American painting linked to an American President, wouldn’t you say? (To be sure, there are reproductions in many American museums now.)

LaBan reported some important conclusions about the painting and Hercules:
  • Experts in Stuart’s art agree that this canvas doesn’t match his technique. The only link to that artist is wishfulness.
  • The tall white cylindrical hat that we know as a toque didn’t become standard for chefs in France until the early 1800s, spreading from that country to others. Hercules surely didn’t wear one at Mount Vernon or the Presidential mansion.
  • The headgear in the painting looks similar to the hat of a man in a painting of free black people on Dominica made by the Italian artist Agostino Brunias (d. 1796) around 1770. 
Thus, the painting is most likely a portrait of a man on Dominica or another Caribbean island. An unnamed man by an unnamed artist—at least for now.

TOMORROW: A real trace of Hercules the cook?

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