11430 PAINTING OF A BLACK CHEF BY JAMES FAGAN (1864-1940) Signed and Dated, New York. 1889. Measurements: Framed: Height: 20 1/4″ (51.4 cm); Width: 15 3/8″ (39 cm) Unframed: Height: 15″ (38.1 cm) Width: 10″(25.4 cm).
Oil on canvas.
Signed and dated, lower right:
James Fagan (1864-1940) was artist from Fordham, New York, who specialized in etchings of portraits, often based on another artist’s work, as well as genre scenes. Many of Fagan’s prints are signed Jas. (a common abbreviation for the name James) Fagan, and include a trademark small vignette below the main image. Fagan contributed prints to John Muir’s Picturesque California and the Region West of the Rocky Mountains from Alaska to Mexico (1888-1890) and H.H. Bancroft’s Achievements of Civilization (1896-1900), and a series of Portraits of Famous Men published by Charles Barmore in the mid-1890s that included Generals W.T. Sherman, P.H. Sheridan, and Ulysses S. Grant, the latter described as “one of the largest and most brilliant etchings ever produced in this country” and “the crowing effort of [the artist’s] life.”1 While Fagan was hailed as “[occupying] the very first rank among living etchers,”2 he also produced oil paintings and exhibited at the Salmagundi Club in New York City, one of the oldest art organizations in the United States, founded in 1871.
The present painting depicts a chef wearing traditional attire of a white double breasted jacket and hat called a toque blanche. While it is not know who the sitter is, his identity as a black man, being represented in this type of portrait and profession, is significant. In spite of sociopolitical injustices and the perceptions of servitude, African-Americans played a major role in America’s culinary history of the 18th and 19th centuries. Chefs that were both enslaved and free, cooked for important households including several presidents, some being sent to France for further culinary education.
Hercules, also called Uncle Harkless, was George Washington’s chief cook at Mount Vernon and the President’s House in Philadelphia before he escaped to freedom in 1797. A portrait believed to be of Hercules by Gilbert Stuart (who also famously painted Washington), belongs to the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid (figure 1). Other notable black chefs of include James Hemmings (1765-1801), who was trained in Paris and worked for Thomas Jefferson before gaining his freedom; Augustus Jackson (1808-1852), who served in the white house in the 1820s and pioneered modern methods of ice cream manufacturing; Nat Fuller (1812-1866), born into slavery but later emancipated, who became the foremost private chef in antebellum Charleston, South Carolina and the city’s greatest Civil War-era restauranteur; and Rufus Estes (b. 1857), who was born into slavery, but after the Civil War ended, traveled to Chicago where worked in deluxe private railroad cars for presidents, foreign dignitaries, industrialists and celebrities, and in 1911 published his own cookbook, placing him among the first African-American cookbook authors.