Who painted this portrait? Who is the sitter?
Until 2017, the painting was attributed to Gilbert Stuart as Portrait of George Washington’s Cook, c. 1795-1797
March 13, 2017. Study Day Mount Vernon
A group of scholars, curators and conservators met on a Study Day to inspect the painting during its loan to the exhibition Lives Bound Together. Slavery at George Washington's Mount Vernon [exhibition catalogue: Susan Schoelwer (ed.): Lives Bound Together. Slavery at George Washington's Mount Vernon. Mount Vernon's Ladies Association, Mount Vernon, 2016 (as “Attributed to Gilbert Stuart, Portrait of George Washington’s Cook, ca. 1795-1797)”]
Mount Vernon: Susan P. Schoelwer, Robert H. Smith Senior Curator; Mary Thompson, Research Historian; Linda Landry, Collections Conservator; Jessie MacLeod, Associate Curator; Diana Welsh, Exhibits Registrar.
Guests: Paloma Alarcó, Chief Curator Modern Painting, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza; Ann Creager, Independent Paintings Conservator; Joanna Dunn, Paintings Conservator, National Gallery of Art; Dorinda Evans, Professor Emerita, Emory University; Marie-Hélène Gugenheim, Independent Paintings Conservator; Amber Kerr, Paintings Conservator, Smithsonian American Art Museum; Craig LaBan, Restaurant Critic, Philadelphia Inquirer; Ellen Miles, Curator Emerita, National Portrait Gallery; Cindy Lou Molnar, Head of Conservation, National Portrait Gallery; Asma Naeem, Assistant Curator, National Portrait Gallery; Alexandra Tice, Independent Paintings Conservator; Jennifer Van Horn, Assistant Professor, University of Delaware.
- Gilbert Stuart authorship is unlikely. Its departure from Stuart’s usual style was especially clear when the portrait was viewed alongside two authenticated Stuart portraits.
- The sitter’s costume suggests a date in the 1770s. The coat, a fine striped silk, possibly French, is definitely a real dress (and not an artistic conceit).
- Dorinda Evans pointed out the similarities of the sitter’s unusual headwear, a silk cap with a lace-edged frill at the top, with that of free West Indian Dominicans portrayed by Agostino Brunias in paintings and engravings from the 1770’s and 1780’s, which would make the sitter a man from the Island of Dominica.
- Hercules, George Washington’s cook, doesn’t fit in this new time-space frame. The sitter is not even a cook. The modern-day chef’s toque did not emerge until the 1820’s.
- The attention to the sitter’s expression and sentience suggests this is a portrait of a specific individual, not a model.
- Nothing in the work’s history connects it to the United States. As the first two owners were British painter Thomas Lawrence and his friend, John Hulbert, and the history of the painting has no connections with the United States, it is most probably by a British painter. The silver frame of this work is very usual in Britain.
Since its return form Mount Vernon in 2017 the painting has been catalogued as:
Portrait of a Man from the Island of Dominica (?), c. 1770-1780
Given the conclusions of the Mount Vernon Study Day and the documents currently available, the Modern Painting Department is reviewing and researching the identity of both artist and sitter of the painting with the collaboration of Dorinda Evans (Professor Emerita, Emory University).
For any comment, please write:
Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza.
Modern Painting Department