Gilbert Stuart occupies an important position within the history of North American painting through his portraits of the country’s early presidents. He became acquainted with the work of the great English portrait painters of the day during the lengthy periods he spent in England and Ireland. Having lived in Washington, Philadelphia and New York, Stuart settled permanently in Boston. There he enjoyed enormous success with his portraits, which are characterised by the plain, dark backgrounds that function to focus attention on the sitter’s face.
This sitter has traditionally been identified as a slave called Hercules who was George Washington’s cook at his Philadelphia residence. Hercules, wearing an immaculate white, chef’s hat, necktie and frock coat, is depicted bust-length with his body slightly turned to the left, framed in a painted oval. Although the image depicts a servant, the dignity with which he is presented is comparable to that found in Stuart’s other portraits.
When slavery was still in force, Hercules (1752–?), one of George Washington’s slaves, began to serve as chief cook at Mount Vernon, his Virginia plantation, in 1789. In 1790 Hercules went to work at the presidential residence in Philadelphia, the capital of the new nation, where he became one of the most famous cooks of his day. In March 1797, at the end of George Washington’s presidential term and a few days before his return to Mount Vernon, Hercules escaped. Years later, in 1801, he was granted his freedom though a decision of Washington and his status thus changed from fugitive to free man.
The portrait painted by Gilbert Stuart, belonging to the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, must have been executed between 1795 and 1797, as the painter was then working on several portraits of the president. The painting, which shows the sitter dressed in his cook’s uniform, conforms to the canons of official portraiture of the day. It bears certain similarities to the portrait that Sir Joshua Reynolds had painted of Frank Berber, his friend Doctor Samuel Johnson’s black servant, in which the artist ennobled his sitter by depicting him in a pose generally reserved for the aristocracy.