Founding Farmers commissioned Jessica Maria Hopkins to paint a portrait of Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman whom historians and biological tests have confirmed had a sexual relationship with Thomas Jefferson that led to at least one and probably six children between 1790 and 1808. There have been mixed reports of their relationship, some even calling it a love affair. But Hemings was an enslaved young woman, and actually a child when their relationship began. It is therefore difficult, if not impossible, to ignore the inherent power imbalance, and likely predatory and potentially violent extension of slaveholder and enslaved woman.
Although primary author of the Declaration of Independence, much has been written about the hypocrisy of our third president’s eloquence on equality and personal freedoms. Sally Hemings existed in a world of white privilege and dominance. Her children stated that the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings began when she was 14 years old. At the time, she accompanied his daughter to France. Upon Hemings’ return to Monticello, her bedroom was located steps away from Jefferson’s. The relationship became a public scandal during his lifetime, yet was denied by his descendants for years. History is often hidden in plain sight. Hemings’ quarters were ultimately turned into a bathroom, until its recent discovery after an archaeological dig.
Relying on the few portraits and written descriptions available, Hopkins created a dignified portrait of Sally Hemings.
Hopkins says, “My painting pays homage to Ms. Hemings in an expressionistic style. I used wood patterns, feathers, newsprint text of articles written about her, and the American Flag to convey my perspective on Sally Hemings’ life. I decided to use wood patterns in my composition because wood is taken from trees of all ages. It’s cut, burned, sanded, and recycled to be used in so many ways. The feathers on Sally Hemings’ chest symbolize a shield protecting her through various stages of her life as a woman and mother. They also convey her beautiful spirit. The other areas on the subject represent the layers of pain she accrued from slavery.”
Hopkins is a native Washingtonian and one of nine children. She began drawing at the age of five partly as a communications tool. She attended the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and the University of the District of Columbia, and received her Master of Fine Arts degree from Howard University. In addition to being an artist, she teaches art at the Mary McLeod Bethune Day Academy Public Charter School. Hopkins has exhibited her work at a variety of galleries and other locations nationally.
Portrait of Sally Hemings
Acrylic, Watercolor, Ink on Paper, 2018