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May 27, 2014 8:26 AM George Washington’s Cook

By James Wimberley

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.

Hercules

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 Victoire

Bingo. 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 visited the New World or indeed anywhere outside France.

Cezanne Marne

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 inlquality.

Cezanne fruit

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.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

James Wimberley was head of the mutual assistance section of the department of education for the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and secretary to the Councils higher education and research committee. He is retired.

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