George Washington’s Cook

Another portrait in the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid, not as good as Ghirlandaio’s exquisite memorial to Giovanna Tornabuoni but of greater historical interest to American readers. Smartphone photo by me, you get what you pay for here. [Update: commenter npm has found a better quality image on the Thyssen site.]
washington The subject is George Washington’s cook; the painter Gilbert Stuart, who also made the iconic (but actually inferior) standing portrait of Washington as a wooden pater patriae that holds pride of place in the White House art collection.

Our trusty research demon Google tells us (via blogger Leap into the Void) that the cook’s name was Hercules, and he was at the time a slave. Washington freed his slaves in his will – in fact after Martha’s death, not his own. But in the meantime he rotated those he took to his presidential home in abolitionist Philadelphia back to Mount Vernon in Virginia to keep them in their place. Hercules made a run for it in 1797, before Martha freed the slaves in 1801 in self-preservation.

A bleg: who commissioned the portrait? My blogger source suggests it may have been Hercules himself, who had a decent income from kitchen perquisites and dressed as a dandy, while Stuart was hopeless with money and often hard up. I can’t see Washington commissioning a painting of one of his slaves, which could have caused jealousy and heightened Hercules’ evidently already high self-esteem.

Time for another Modest Proposal, inspired by Mike O’Hare’s strictures about the obsessive hoarding of museum curators. In the Thyssen, the portrait is a mildly interesting minor work of the American school of painting. In the USA, it has far greater resonance. It complements and humanizes the portrait of Washington, and illustrates a very significant story about the complicated and hypocritical relationship of the Virginian group of Founders to their slaves and the institution of slavery: the original sin of the new republic, whose price is still being paid. The portrait is not a masterpiece, but brings Hercules to life as a real African-American who endured slavery, and with luck and talent, and against huge odds, made a personal success of his life and gained his freedom. The right place for this picture is in the White House in Washington.

If Michelle Obama takes up my idea, her husband will have to secure the painting. I can’t believe the American Embassy in Madrid is so overworked that it can’t find time for this. What exactly is the list of thorny bilateral issues on which they burn the midnight oil? Anyway, once the Thyssen curators have overcome their shock about the very idea of giving up one jot of the sacred Collection, it’s a matter of making an offer they can’t refuse.

Here’s my suggestion. The White House has its own substantial art collection. Some of it is (qua art) rubbish, oil portraits of Betty Ford and the like. Some of it is woven into American culture and history, like the Remington bronze of a bronco buster. I looked for stuff that is (a) good and (b) has no significant American connection.

Cezanne VictoireBingo. The collection includes eight paintings by Paul Cézanne, including one of his series of the Mont Ste-Victoire, another lovely one of a house on the Marne, and a robust still life of fruit. Cézanne never AFAICT vCezanne Marneisited the New World or indeed anywhere outside France. His inspiration is deeply rooted in the French countryside and the work of previous French painters, from Chardin to Monet. In the history of painting, he stands between two French schools, the Impressionists and the Cubists, while he stands above both in qualCezanne fruitity. Cézanne is on most people’s list of all-time greats, and astronomical auction prices  reflect this.


The White House set is easily the best stuff in its collection, and what an informed burglar would lift for a $100m ransom along with the football. The right place for these fine works is in a major public museum where they can be enjoyed and studied by professionals and ordinary art lovers, young and old, without the chokepoint of White House security. (They do have to worry about threats more scary than art thieves.) Such a proposal may be impracticable – another hissy fit about the Collection! But letting just one go might be. Being Commander-in-Chief must be good for something.

I’d be very surprised if the Thyssen didn’t jump at the swap after its hissy fit. Paul Cézanne is much, much higher in the museological pecking order than Gilbert Stuart. They only have two of his, a fine portrait of a seated farmer and a not-fantastic still life (not on show on Sunday), but don’t have a landscape to round off their small set. The terms of the Thyssen donation to the Spanish state and of the Loeser bequest to the White House will no doubt call for fancy legal footwork, perhaps structuring the swap as a long-term loan. I’ll be happy with a small consultancy fee and an invitation to the ceremony.
* * * * * *
Update 28 May

TitaThyssenTo make this more interesting, let’s bring in the Baron’s widow, Carmen “Tita” Thyssen, née Cervera, former Miss Spain etc, born 1943. The Baroness is not exactly a blushing flower and will certainly have an opinion on the Modest Proposal. The Spanish government owes her for fighting off the Baron’s children by his four previous marriages and bringing his great collection to Spain. She also AFAICT maintains substantial control over her own collection, housed in a separate wing of the museum. However, she picked a fight with Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, then Mayor of Madrid, and current Minister of Justice, over his plan to redo the streets near the Prado and the Thyssen Museum. Michelle Obama will need to secure her support or neutrality, while the Ambassador sidelines Ruiz-Gallardón. An invitation to dinner in the White House, or tea with Carmen’s two young adopted daughters (b. 2007 in the USA), ought to do it.

I may have to buy a new suit.


  1. Nora Carrington says


    It's not as if Washington DC has a dearth of Cezanne's, either. Objections might be met with a catalog of the Cezanne collection at the National Gallery of Art, just a hop skip and a jump down Pennsylvania Avenue.

    This is a terrific idea and worth a letter to Mrs. Obama, I'd think. You should do it. If you don't, I might.

    • JamesWimberley says


      I've emailed the White House with a message for her. A letter from a US citizen might be more effective, so please go ahead with my anticipated thanks.

  2. TedThompson says


    Great find! Though I would rather see the Smithsonian negotiate this trade, then display this painting where more people will see it. I imagine that the willful ignorance that afflicts this country with regard to its history of slavery probably helps explain how this portrait ended up in Spain in the first place.

    • JamesWimberley says


      Leaving it to the curators will guarantee that nothing happens because We Don’t Do Things That Way. Breaking though this conservatism calls for the exercise of raw alpha-dog political power, based on values other than those of conventional art history. I’m afraid it’s the White House or nothing.

      I’ve not forgiven the Smithsonian for its gutlessness in 2009 over the bi-centenary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of The Origin of Species.

    • JamesWimberley says


      Lots of potential for marketing spinoffs. I'm working on a concept for a caper movie (Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones?) as art burglars in the White House. After all, the security is primarily aimed at stopping bad guys from bringing weapons in, not taking stuff out.

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