National Portrait Gallery: Titus Kaphar and Ken Gonzales-Day Explore ‘UnSeen’ Narratives in Historic Portraiture
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Hanging half loose from its stretcher, a portrait of Thomas Jefferson reveals an image of a black woman behind it.
It’s a provocative juxtaposition that raises a question about the relationship between the two subjects. Her hair is covered while her partially shown shoulder and leg are bare. She is brown-skinned with an indeterminable gaze. She evokes both assertion and alarm.
Titled “Beyond the Myth of Benevolence” (2014), the painting by Titus Kaphar was inspired by a Rembrandt Peale portrait of Jefferson made in 1800.
“This painting is about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, and yet it is not,” Kaphar said. “The reason I say, ‘And yet it is not,’ is because we know from the actual history that Sally Hemings was very fair. Very, very fair. The woman who sits here is not just simply a representation of Sally Hemings, she’s more of a symbol of many of the black women whose stories have been shrouded by the narratives of our deified founding fathers.”