This post is both a deviation and continuation from my previous post on race and agency. Mostly illustrated with images of George Washington, it brought to mind Gilbert Stuart and some of his other works.
Stuart was not the best money manager by a long shot. During the Revolutionary War, Stuart left for Europe, where he had some success as an artist, but also narrowly avoided debtor's prison. Back in the United States his financial situation didn't improve, and he died leaving his family with a heavy burden of debt. Stuart was well regarded as a painter, and cranked out something like a thousand portraits of America's early upper class. Stuart also sold 70 copies of his portrait of Washington at a hundred bucks a pop.
One of his many portraits is a work titled, "Alleged portrait of George Washington's cook," in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. Other portrait by Stuart in the museum give the sitter's name; by calling him "Washington's cook," the title implies that the position was entered into voluntarily. The cook, named Hercules, was Washington's slave brought from the President's Mt. Vernon plantation to work as chef at the first presidential house in Philadelphia. Washington's letters to and from his secretary show that they were concerned about the possible freedom of the nine slaves he brought to Pennsylvania. State law allowed the for the emancipation of any slave brought to the state after six months. Washington's work around was to periodically rotate his staff between his farm the the presidential home. Like George Bush, Washington used geography to subvert the intentions of the law.Is That a Cannon, or Are You Just Glad to See Me?
Cropped Shot of the Newly Opened American Galleries at the Huntington Library
(with one of 130 portraits of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, r)
I'm sure Washington was aware of his home state of Virginia's Declaration of Rights, which preceded (and informed) the more famous July 4th document:
"That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety."The institution of slavery was problematic for both the Declaration of Independence and the document quoted above. Recent excavations on the site of the President's house show that a second well was dug on the back of the property during Washington's tenure. The original well, which could be seen from the home's entry, would have been used by the slaves to draw water for the household, and the sight of Washington's enslaved household staff would have been problematic for visiting Europeans and abolitionists. Excavations also uncovered a tunnel connecting the main house to the kitchen, providing access for servants to all areas while remaining out of sight.
"...His prerequisites from the slops of the kitchen were from one to two hundred dollars a year. Though homely in person, he lavished the most of these large avails upon dress. In making his toilet his linen was of unexceptional whiteness and quality, then black silk shorts, ditto waistcoat, ditto stockings, shoes highly polished, with large buckles covering a considerable part of the foot, blue cloth with velvet collar and bright metal buttons, a long watch-chain dangling from his fob, a cocked-hat and gold-headed cane completed the grand costume of the celebrated dandy of the president's kitchen.It's quite probable that someone so concerned with their appearance and social standing (and with the financial means) could commission a portrait by Stuart, and the cash-strapped artist would react favorably.
Thus arrayed, the chief cook invariably passed out at the front door, the porter making a low bow, which was promptly returned. Joining his brother-loungers of the pave, he proceeded up Market street, attracting considerable attention, that street being, in the old times, the resort where fashionables 'did most congregate.'"
When the time came for Hercules rotation to Vermont, he became aware of the underlying reason for the move. Tobias Lear, the president's secretary reported,Black Face: A Souvenir From the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza
"...and altho' he made not the least objection to going; yet, he said he was mortified to the last degree to think that a suspicion could be entertained of his fidelity or attachment to you. So much did the poor fellow's feelings appear to be touched that it left no doubt of his sincerity and to shew him that there were no apprehensions of that kind entertained of him, Mrs. Washington told him he should not go at that time."Even though Hercules remained in Philadelphia long after the time when he could claim his freedom, he remained as Washington's enslaved chef until March of 1797, the night before he was to be returned to Mt. Vernon. Washington made several attempts track down and capture his fugitive slave, but he was never found. About a month later, Hercules's 6-year-old daughter, was asked if she was upset that she would never see her father again. The girl reportedly replied, "Oh! Sir, I am very glad, because he is free now."
Hercules was legally freed in 1801. A little more than half the 285 slaves on Washington's plantation were dower slaves, legally owned by Martha from her previous marriage. Washington hoped to free his slaves upon his death, but not wanting to tear apart families created by the inter marrying of the two groups of slaves, his will stipulated that they would be freed upon Martha's Death. This created a predicament for the former fist lady. The only thing standing between Washington's 124 enslaved black Americans and freedom was Martha's beating heart. In a fit of self preservation, she was forced to free her husband's slaves early.
On my visit to the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, the only reproductions of Hercules' portrait were the two pictured above, both with racist overtones (dark chocolate? black face?). Along with changing their description from "Supuesto retrato del cocinero de George Washington" to "Supuesto retrato de Hércules, el cocinero esclavizados de George Washington" (Supposed portrait of Hercules, the enslaved cook of George Washington), they would be able to offer less racist options from their museum store, along with a more accurate account, in the style they use to describe pictures of white folks in their museum.