Tuesday, February 27

Chef and slave of a president

Portrait of a Man from the Island of Dominica (1770). / TODAY

Several investigations rule out that a Thyssen portrait represents Hercules Posey, George Washington’s cook

Ana Vega Perez de Arlucea

I like it that way. After dedicating two articles to the history of the chef’s uniform and talking specifically about the chef’s hat last week, an astute reader asked me about the Thyssen chef. I love that you are keeping an eye out, because it is true that the portrait of that polished and shiny marmito does not fit with the chronology that I have made here of the chef’s clothing.

I’m talking about a painting that until recently appeared in the catalog of the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid under the title ‘Portrait of George Washington’s cook’. Attributed to the American artist Gilbert Stuart and dated around 1795, this canvas has been used repeatedly to illustrate articles, books and web pages related to gastronomy, so it is possible that many of you have seen it at some point despite not having seen it. never visited the Thyssen. I am sorry to tell you that for now you will have to settle for looking at a reproduction: the canvas is currently not on display and it seems that at least in the short term it will not be hung again in the Madrid art gallery.

This is what usually happens when a famous painting changes its attribution. The painting remains the same, but what was thought to be seen in it is different. What used to be a Velázquez is now a copy of Martínez del Mazo, for example, with the consequent loss of fervor among visitors. Or, as in this case, what was thought to be the only representation of a fascinating historical character turns out to be not. For years it was believed that the man you see portrayed here was Hercules Posey (1748-1812), cook to the first president of the United States and one of the many slaves George Washington owned during his lifetime.

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Whoever looked at the painting saw a black man dressed in impeccable white, but also one of the first chefs in the United States, a person proud of his profession, a worker praised for his talent and above all, a slave who was able to escape his chains. The supposed portrait of Hercules was a milestone, a true icon of African-American identity and a symbol of the racism of some founding fathers, capable of buying and selling people despite fighting against the English for freedom. While the original rested in Spain in the United States, replicas became popular, placed in places such as the Smithsonian Museum (Washington DC) or the Independence National Historical Park (Philadelphia), shedding light on the darkest facet of General Washington.

not a chef

The portrait of the presidential chef traveled in 2016 from Madrid to Mount Vernon (Virginia), the family plantation of the Washingtons, to be part of an exhibition on slavery. There the painting was examined by academics, historians and art experts from both sides of the Atlantic. His conclusions, published just three years ago, were unanimous and devastating: the image was painted around 1775, but it is not by Gilbert Stuart and it does not represent Hercules Posey either. Not even a chef. The cap worn by the protagonist of the painting is not related to the classic ‘toque de cuisine’ –which emerged in France in 1821–, but to the headdress worn by free blacks on the island of Dominica, in the Caribbean. The same white silk turban with lace can be seen in some canvases by Agostino Brunias, an Italian painter who worked in the Antilles at the end of the 18th century and whose work is present, by the way, in the Carmen Thyssen collection.

Renamed ‘Portrait of a man from the island of Dominica’, the oil in question rests in a warehouse waiting for the mourning for what was and is no longer to end. If for some the discovery has meant an irreparable loss, for others it has contributed to turning Hercules Posey into a real person, just like all the other faceless slaves. He also encouraged Ramin Ganeshram, author of a novel about the presidential cook (‘The General’s Cook’), to seek new data about his life.

Hercules was born a slave on the plantation of John Posey, a neighbor of the Washingtons, and around 1767 he became the property of the general in payment of a loan. About 250 slaves then lived in Mount Vernon. One of them, received by Martha Washington as a dowry when she married, was her teacher in the art of the hearth. It stood out so much that his master, recently elected president of the United States, decided to call him to Philadelphia to serve the elegant banquets at his official residence. At that time, Pennsylvania law allowed slaves with more than six months of residence in the state to claim their freedom, so to avoid this, Washington rotated its slaves between the capital and her Virginia plantation.

Hercules escaped from Mount Vernon on February 22, 1797, the day of his master’s 65th birthday, and was not heard from again until 2019, when Ramin Ganeshram found his burial record in the archives. He lived free fifteen years, until his death in New York in 1812.


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