Founding Farmers commissioned Ronald Jackson to paint Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved chef, James Hemings, who was the brother of Sally Hemings and half-sibling to Martha Wayles Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s wife. Jefferson heavily relied on Hemings, requiring his presence and cooking wherever he lived: at Monticello, in Williamsburg, in Richmond when he was governor of Virginia, and on his extensive travels to Paris, Philadelphia, and New York City. Hemings also travelled alone, including being sent on a trip to France to be trained in the art of French cooking.
Jackson’s painting helps us honor James Hemings, who was freed when he was 30 years old, before Jefferson became president. President Jefferson apparently kept in touch with Hemings and asked him to come cook in the White House. Hemings said he was otherwise engaged, although he did eventually appear to cook again one summer at Monticello, leaving once summer ended. Later that same year he committed suicide.
Our portrait shows Chef Hemings drizzling sauce over a prepared plate of food. The painting is filled with symbols important to Hemings’ cooking, to Monticello, to our third president, and to the nation’s history. The ribbon banner with the French inscription “Tous les hommes sont créés égaux,” which says, “All men are created equal,” references the Declaration of Independence. There is a bounty of food frequently served at Monticello on display, including: a dish of figs, a cabbage and fruit, sliced cured meat, a cake layered with fruit, and bottles of wine. There are also fresh-cut green herbs and flowers.
As an artist, Jackson seeks to engage the viewer in a dialogue by what is being seen and imagined through paintings that are reminiscent of his life experiences. Jackson says he is trying to “capture intimate settings to use as a gateway to ponder the complexities of the human experience, as well as the society that influences them.”
Raised in a farming family in the rural Arkansas Delta, Jackson is the youngest of 11 siblings and has always been drawn to the creative arts. Halfway through a 21-year military career, Jackson had an epiphany that turned his attention to painting. He has participated in several juried group art shows and has been featured in three solo exhibitions. Two of his portraits of President Washington’s chefs also hang at our sibling restaurant, Farmers & Distillers. Ronald Jackson is represented by Galerie Myrtis in Baltimore, MD.
Portrait of Chef James Hemings
Oil on Canvas, 2018