Experts say portrait isn't of George Washington's chef

PHILADELPHIA — A portrait long thought to be of George Washington's enslaved chef, who cooked for the former president at Mount Vernon and Philadelphia before escaping, is actually not of Hercules, and isn't even of a chef, art experts concluded after a two-year study.

Experts who gathered in 2017 at Mount Vernon, Washington's Virginia plantation, unanimously agree the 18th-century portrait believed to be of Hercules wearing a chef's toque is not actually of the man, Philly.com reported Friday. The findings are now public.

"There is a real sense of loss there. It's such a powerful portrait," Mount Vernon senior curator Susan P. Schoelwer told Philly.com.

Hercules had cooked for Washington for a number of years before escaping in 1797. He wasn't heard from again.

Schoelwer helped coordinate the gathering to discuss the mystery of "Presumed Portrait of George Washington's Cook." The portrait had long been attributed to Gilbert Stuart, best known for his unfinished portrait of Washington. But that also doesn't appear to be true.

Dorinda Evans, a Stuart scholar, said the portrait is "very different from how Stuart would have done it."

The experts agree the painting is from the 1700s and say the subject must be notable if a portrait was commissioned. Experts also said what was thought to be a toque is actually a headdress similar to ones worn in by free Dominicans in other paintings.

When journalist and author Ramin Ganeshram, who used the image on the cover of her novel "The General's Cook," was told of the experts' new realization, she couldn't let it go. Ganeshram is executive director of the Westport Historical Society in Connecticut and gathered information on Hercules, hoping to prove the portrait was of him.

Instead, the quest led her to documents about a "Hercules Posey." Posey is the surname of a previous owner of Washington' chef. She and her historical society colleague, Sara Krasne, who is a trained genealogist, recovered a death notice from New York City. They believe Hercules was left behind at a Manhattan cemetery when bodies were moved to Brooklyn in the early 1800s. He's most likely still buried under what is now sidewalk, they said. Two historians agree.

"I would totally feel comfortable speculating that it was him," said Erica Armstrong Dunbar, a history professor at Rutgers University.

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