Archive for the ‘Hercules’ Category

Hercules Revisited

Back in January of 2016 I posted two pieces about a slave named Hercules who was George Washington’s cook for many years both in Mount Vernon and Philadelphia. See them here and here. There was an additional post about Hercules in 2017. Hercules “absconded” in 1797 and could not be located although Washington made attempts to recover him, as did his widow.

This portrait, supposedly of Hercules, appeared in the post. Thought to be by Gilbert Stuart it is in the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, a strange place for an artifact associated with George Washington. Who commissioned it is a mystery. Would Washington have wanted a portrait of the enslaved man who was his chef? Slaves had appeared in other paintings of Washington and his family but they were always subordinate characters. Could Hercules himself have commissioned it? He was quite the dandy and made a fair amount of money by selling leftovers from Washington meals.

A recent post by J.L. Bell brought new information about the portrait to my attention. Experts have come to the conclusion that both the subject and the artist have been misrepresented. Although the painting definitely dates to the 1700s, on careful examination the technique and details are not typical of Gilbert Stuart. As for the hat in the portrait, it was assumed to be the toque that chefs wore, but the toque in fact did not appear until the 1820s. The hat in the portrait is now thought to resemble the kind of headdress worn by men on certain islands in the West Indies, as seen in paintings by Agostino Brunias of Dominican Creoles in that era.

This article by Craig LeBan provides more information on Hercules. It turns out that Hercules as a teenager was sold to George Washington by a neighbor who owed him money. The neighbor’s name was John Posey. It was common for enslaved workers to take the last name of their owners, so Hercules’ last name was likely Posey. Since the last known location for Hercules was New York City, researchers checked death notices there and found a Hercules Posey, formerly of Virginia, who lived on Orange Street and died in 1812 at the age of 64.

It seems fair to conclude that the man whose death is recorded above is Washington’s cook. But the mystery surrounding the portrait still remains. Who is the man in the famous portrait and who painted it?

posted April 29th, 2019 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Art,Hercules,New York,Stuart, Gilbert,Washington, George

“Dismantling History” —Titus Kaphar

My friend and colleague Louise North recently commended to my attention an American artist named TITUS KAPHAR. Indeed, upon examination, I find his work fascinating as it frequently deals with history—myth and misremembered—often focusing on the dark sides of events and those we revere as heroes. His paintings are frequently three dimensional or sculptural in nature; there are often layers which peeled away reveal previously hidden or unacknowledged facts or qualities.

In an article in the Art21 magazine dated Dec 2, 2015 called “Dismantling History: An Interview with Titus Kaphar with
Lindsey Davis,” Kaphar says:

I’ve come to realize that all reproduction, all depiction is fiction – it’s simply a question of to what degree. As much as we try to speak to the facts of a historical incident, we often alter those facts, sometimes drastically, through the retelling itself.

Understanding this has given me the freedom to manipulate, and change historical images in a way that recharges them for me. Knowing that artists throughout time who have attempted to retell history have always embraced, whether consciously or unconsciously, a degree of fiction, in order to achieve the sentiment of the facts is liberating.

Kaphar credits his art history education at Yale with fostering his belief that “obvious oversights in the canon were regularly understated, suppressed or ignored.” He set out to challenge the viewer, to probe beneath the surface, to gain new insights into the character of his subject. Two paintings strike me as especially provocative since their subjects have figured in this blog.

We sometimes forget that George Washington, the father of our country and acknowledged as its greatest president, was an active slaveholder. When he died there were 317 slaves at Mount Vernon, more than half of whom were dower slaves from his wife’s estate. Kaphar’s image reminds the viewer of this. The lower half of Washington’s face is masked by streamers attached by (real) rusted nails imprinted with names of slaves and excerpts from ads placed for their recovery. The work’s title “Absconded,” in all likelihood refers to the slave whose name features prominently, one Oney Judge, who in fact did escape and fled to New England. In spite of Washington’s efforts, she was never recovered. The Washingtons could not understand why slaves who were not mistreated would want to be free. See posts about Oney here, here, here, and here.

Another slave who also absconded was Washington’s chef, Hercules. Kaphar’s dramatic representation in tar and oil on canvas obscures Hercules’ face; he’s just another slave forgotten by history. See blog posts on Hercules here and here. Compare what is thought to be a portrait of Hercules by Gilbert Stuart with the depiction by Titus Kaphar.

“In the absence of adequate facts, our hearts rifle through memories, foraging satisfactory fictions.”

Read the entire interview with Kaphar HERE.

posted May 5th, 2017 by Janet, comments (1), CATEGORIES: Art,Hercules,Kaphar, Titus,Staines, Ona "Oney" Judge,Washington, George

Bake a cherry pie

Since recent posts have be concerned with the slave Hercules, George Washington’s highly regarded chef who escaped, I thought I would bring to your attention a book describing how the Washingtons’ dinner table might have looked and what the menus were likely to have included. Dining With the Washingtons, Historic Recipes, Entertaining, and Hospitality from Mount Vernon edited by Stephen A. McLeod and published by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association contains many beautiful photographs of table settings, prepared foods, and gardens at Mount Vernon as well as informative essays and several recipes. With Valentine’s Day coming up as well as George Washington’s birthday you might want to prepare a cherry pie. (The “I cannot tell a lie” story about George chopping down the cherry tree is a myth invented by Washington’s biographer Mason Weems.) See the recipe here.

posted January 28th, 2016 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Food,Hercules,Mount Vernon,Washington, George,Washington, Martha

Follow-up on Hercules

Apropos the recent controversy over the depiction of Hercules, the cook in the household of George and Martha Washington, in A Birthday Cake for George Washington (see previous post), here are some additional interesting details about Hercules. The Philadelphia Inquirer published an article on January 23, 2016 describing work on the President’s mansion at Sixth and Market Streets in Philadelphia that uncovered the kitchen where Hercules worked. Ironically it is located just in front of the new Liberty Bell Center. Also cited is a farm report from Mount Vernon that shows that Hercules “absconded” on Washington’s birthday in 1797.
Louis-Philippe, the future king of France, visiting Mount Vernon in the spring of 1797 recorded in his diary: “The general’s cook ran away, being now in Philadelphia, and left a little daughter of six at Mount Vernon. Beaudoin ventured that the little girl must be deeply upset that she would never see her father again; she answered, ‘Oh! Sir, I am very glad, because he is free now.'”* How did Louis-Philippe know that Hercules was in Philadelphia? Perhaps Washington said that he suspected that was the case.
At any rate Washington requested that contacts in Philadelphia be on the lookout for Hercules. His former steward Frederick Kitt replied in a letter dated January 1798: “I have been making distant enquiries about Herculas but did not till about four weeks ago hear anything of him and that was only that [he] was in town neither do I yet know where he is, and that will be very difficult to find out in the secret manner necessary to be observed on the occasion. I shall however use the utmost exertions in my power, and hereafter inform you of my sucess.”
Hercules was never recovered. In his will Washington specified that the slaves he owned be manumitted. After his death in 1799, Martha saw that his wishes were carried out. So Hercules became legally free although he did not know it. In 1801 Martha Washington wrote a letter to Richard Varick in New York indicating that she had learned that Hercules was in New York.** But nothing more was ever heard again of Hercules or his whereabouts.
The portrait shown is by Gilbert Stuart and is thought to be of Hercules. It is in the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid. Who commissioned it is a mystery. Would George Washington have wanted a portrait of his cook who was a slave? Could Hercules himself have commissioned it? It has been suggested by James Wemberley that the portrait ought to be in the White House Collection and that Michelle Obama might undertake to acquire it. I like the idea. See Wemberley’s article on a possible exchange.

* Louis-Philippe, Diary of My Travels in America, translation by Stephen Becker (New York: Delacorte Press, 1977), p. 32.
** Martha Washington to Col. Richard Varick, 15 December 1801. “Worthy Partner:” The Papers of Martha Washington, Joseph E. Fields, ed., (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994), pp. 398-99.

posted January 25th, 2016 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Food,Hercules,Mount Vernon,New York,Philadelphia,Washington, George,Washington, Martha

Hercules and the Birthday Cake for Washington

In the news recently is the recall by Scholastic Publishers of A Birthday Cake for George Washington by author Ramin Ganeshram and illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton which was released on January 5. The story is about Washington’s cook, a slave named Hercules, and his daughter Delia who bake the cake of the title. The book for young readers has been criticized because it depicts slavery in the Washington household as rather benign.
Hercules was an accomplished chef who served the president in Philadelphia and was accorded privileges denied other enslaved workers. A bit of a dandy, he ran a tight ship lording it over his underlings in the kitchen and was able to accrue a considerable amount of money by selling leftovers from the presidential table.
Washington regularly rotated his slaves back to Mount Vernon from Philadelphia because of a Pennsylvania law that allowed them their freedom after six months residence. When Hercules was returned to Mount Vernon early in 1797 and was assigned duties as a laborer, which he must have considered beneath him, he ran away.
George Washington was angered and mystified by his action just as he and Martha never could understand why Oney Judge, a slave who was one of Martha’s personal maids, also ran away in 1796 when she was in Philadelphia. In both cases Washington attempted to recover the slaves, but his efforts failed. See recent posts about Oney here, here, and here.
Although notes in the Birthday Cake book do say that Hercules ran away, that fact and his desire to escape are not dealt with in the story itself, nor are the evils of slavery. These are unfortunate errors in judgment on the part of the author and illustrator who are both African Americans. The Washingtons did not comprehend that being “well treated” is not the same as being free. And readers of the book need to understand that too. Oney said “she did not want to be a slave always.” And when asked whether she regretted her decision to run away replied “No, I am free, and have, I trust, been made a child of God by the means.”

See the article on Hercules in George Washington’s Mount Vernon, also J.L. Bell’s blog post on the subject.

posted January 21st, 2016 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Book Beat,Hercules,Pennsylvania,Philadelphia,Staines, Ona "Oney" Judge,Washington, George,Washington, Martha

   Copyright © 2019 In the Words of Women.