I’ve often been asked, “Why do you study the Revolution and Early Republic? Is there really anything else to write about?” The remarkable story of this portrait and Hercules the chef shows just how much we still have to learn.
Hercules was sold to President George Washington in 1767. He was a talented chef and his abilities were well-known. Washington brought him to the President’s House in both New York City and Philadelphia to cook daily meals for the family and lavish feasts to impress the president’s guests. In return for his talents, Washington granted Hercules a special perk: he was permitted to sell the leftovers from the president’s kitchen and keep the profits. Reports from Philadelphia suggest that Hercules spent some of that pocket money on his wardrobe, as he often walked the city streets in fashionable attire.
In early 1797, as Washington prepared to retire and return to Mount Vernon, he sent Hercules back to the plantation. Until Washington arrived, there wasn’t much cooking to be done, so James Anderson, the farm manager, put Hercules to work digging clay for bricks. This sort of physical labor was literally back-breaking, but also an insult to Hercules and his culinary abilities. After digging for a few days, he ran away on Washington’s birthday and was never seen again. When a visitor to Mount Vernon asked one of his daughters, either Evey or Delia, if she was sad her father was gone, she replied she was “very glad, because he is free now.”
In 1796, famed painter Gilbert Stuart visited the President’s House and painted his Lansdowne portrait of George Washington. (The painting is known as the Lansdowne portrait because Senator William Bingham purchased the portrait for William Petty, the first Marquis of Lansdowne. The painting now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery).
It was long assumed that while Stuart painted Washington, he also painted the portrait of Hercules. The painting was likely identified as a Stuart creation to increase the value and identified as Hercules to further increase its import. But the painting had remained in private hands until 1983, so scholars and specialists never really had the opportunity to study it. By the 1980s, this interpretation of the painting and its identification had taken root. The image was used on several books about enslaved chefs and a copy hangs at the President’s House National Park Site in Philadelphia.
All of that changed this year, when Gilbert Stuart specialists and historians finally had the opportunity to examine the painting. They uncovered three major problems with the painting. First, Dorinda Evans, a Gilbert Stuart scholar, said the painting’s techniques, style, and materials are inconsistent with Stuart’s other works.
Second, chefs didn’t start wearing their famous white hats until the 1820s. Viewers had long assumed that this man was Hercules because he was wearing a white hat, but that didn’t track with fashion trends of the time. Additionally, Hercules was known for his fashionable garments, not a white uniform.
Finally, this type of headdress was consistent with the ones worn by free Dominicans in the West Indies. Italian artist Agostino Brunias captured this style in his paintings, including this one.
This discovery is a bit sad in some ways. Not only does it remove an image of Hercules and that’s one less painting that exists of enslaved African-Americans, but scholars may never discover who was the man in the painting.
Those familiar with Hercules’ story were initially quite upset because it seemed like now there was no information about what happened to him after he ran away. The portrait had always seemed like maybe it had offered a clue to his next steps. But earlier this year, Ramin Ganeshram, a writer of historical fiction, and Sara Krasne, the archives manager at the Westport Historical Society, dug through the 1812 New York City directory. And there was Hercules, possibly hiding in plain sight. He was listed as Hercules Posey, a laborer, living at 33 Orange Street. Posey as a last name makes sense, since that was the name of Hercules’ previous owner. This Hercules Posey evidently died of consumption on May 15, 1812. His death records state that he was born in 1748 in Virginia—adding further confirmation that this Hercules was probably the same Hercules that ran away from Mount Vernon. He was buried at the Second African Burying Ground in Lower Manhattan, so his grave likely still lies under the Chrystie Street sidewalk.
While his next location and his death may be all that is discovered about Hercules, it’s a start and offers the hint of more future possibilities. At the very least, it shows how much is still available to discover, especially with increased archival digitization efforts.
Click here to read the original news article about this discovery.