Home » Painted out of existence, Bélizaire is just one example of erasure of Black figures in history

Painted out of existence, Bélizaire is just one example of erasure of Black figures in history

Bélizaire was a young man of mixed-race lineage, enslaved by the family of the banker and merchant Frederick Frey in early 19th-century Louisiana. He was about 15 years old when the famous French neo-classical portraitist Jacques Guilliaume Lucien Amans arrived at the Frey home on Royal Street in the French Quarter to paint a portrait.

Like other wealthy Louisiana families, the Freys were probably thrilled to commission a painting of their young family as an emblem of their status among New Orleans’ elite. They’d owned Bélizaire since he was 6, and with the Freys having sold all of his siblings (save one) in the span of time since then, it seems clear that the young man knew no other family. He’d spent nearly a decade taking care of their precious children, picking up after them day after day, playing games with them, and serving as their sitter and caretaker. He was indeed a valued and even beloved possession, if not an actual member of the family. The year was (probably) 1837, and in the free-thinking spirit of the times, the Freys must have felt, why not include him in the painting?

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Monsieur Amans would have understood the situation. For the portrait, he’d tactfully arrange the three Frey children in the foreground, smiling directly at the artist. But he’d set Belizaire more in the background, staring off a bit to his right, perhaps engaged in contemplating his next chore for the family. Would that do, he asked? Mrs. Frey, the bankers’ wife, doubtlessly nodded in assent. And so, the portrait was made, and afterward, displayed prominently in the stately Frey home.

As explained by the Ogden Museum of Southern Art:

This portrait captures the complex relationship between an enslaved boy and the children of his mastergrowing up in the same French Quarter mansion, where there existed simultaneously a sort of intimacy alongside the psychological trauma of forced bondage. Bélizaire and his mother Sally, the household cook, were purchased by Coralie Frey from her husband when his extensive property holdingsincluding real estate and enslaved peoplecame up for auction to satisfy the debts owed to his creditors.

But the Freys’ good fortune did not last. None of the children in the painting, save Bélizaire, survived to become adults, two at least likely succumbing to yellow fever. Frederick Frey, the master of the house, passed away and the family business fell apart. It suddenly became necessary for Coralie Frey, a widow, to salvage whatever she could. So Bélizaire, now a grown man, was sold away to another wealthy Louisiana family. (This was reported by Maria Clark, who researched the painting’s history for an article in The American South. He was sold in 1856 for $1,200.) That sale was during the runup to the Civil War. What became of Bélizaire after that is unknown. Lézin Becnel’s (a “prominent sugar planter in St. John the Baptist parish”) family listed him as a “domestic” and a “cook” at the Evergreen Plantation in their family assets until 1861, but after that the record of his existence ends.

The painting, however, survived. In a manner of speaking.

As the Ogden Museum website recounts, the portrait, having been passed down to Coralie Frey’s descendants, was thereafter altered at some point, likely around 1900, when the “the figure of Bélizaire was intentionally painted over, effectively erasing him from the portrait.” 


The reasons for Bélizaire’s “erasure” are unknown, but as speculated by Louisiana historian Katy Morlas Shannon, interviewed by Alexandra Eaton for The New York Times’ pictorial account of the portrait’s murky history, it was likely a reflection of the prevailing social mores in Louisiana at that time:

Who did it and why are unknown, but segregation is known to have deepened in turn of the century New Orleans. Shannon said about the era, “No white person of any social standing in New Orleans at that time would have wanted a Black person portrayed with their family on their wall.”

Whether and how the portrait remained on display for the better part of the 20th century is unknown. Ultimately, in 1972, Coralie Frey’s great-great-granddaughter donated the portrait to the New Orleans Museum of Art. At that time, as noted by Smithsonian Magazine, she advised the museum that the image of “an enslaved child” had been painted over.

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But according to the museum, the portrait was not in an exhibitable condition. So, it languished for another 32 years in storage, until it was sold in 2005 to an (unnamed) antiques dealer, who was interested in finding out what—or who—had been hidden by the painting’s alteration.

As Eaton’s article for the Times explains, the dealer had a conservator, Katja Grauman, do a “test cleaning” of the portrait.

She treated small areas where the figure appeared to be and first revealed a coat and then a face. “We’ve restored plenty of American portraits of children and very rarely do you see a Black person in it,” she said.

In fact, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which now owns the painting known as “Belizaire and the Frey Children,” the work is “is actually the first naturalistic portrait in the American Wing of a named Black subject set in a Southern landscape.”

The Met acquired the portrait through the efforts of a Baton Rouge art collector named Jeremy K. Simien, who spent years trying to locate it after first seeing an image of it online in its restored condition. Upon discovering another image of the same painting, one with the slave boy painted over, his interest became more acute: “The fact that he was covered up haunted me,” he said in an interview as described in Eaton’s article. Simien finally tracked the painting down in 2021 and bought it. As Eaton reports:

“We knew we needed to find out who he was, as a son of Louisiana,” said Simien, “and as somebody who is worthy of being remembered or known.”

As Eaton observes, beyond its artistic significance, the painting “tells a story about the erasure of Black figures throughout American history.” As she explains, the fact of its very existence, among thousands of images rendered of white people living at the same time and place, speaks to its unique and lasting value.

Neither the Met nor Simien would disclose what the museum paid for the Frey family portrait. But 19th century portraits of people of African descent, even with unidentified sitters, have drawn high prices. In January 2023, a portrait of two girls, one white and one African American, sold at Christie’s for just under a million dollars. In May 2022, at an auction in North Carolina, a portrait of a free woman of color sold for $984,000 to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.

The painting will be exhibited this fall and next spring in the American wing at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. The video accompanying Eaton’s New York Times article is below:

As Eaton reports, in tandem with the exhibit of this portrait, the Met is conducting its own investigation to try to unearth more details about Bélizaire’s life.

The saga of the Bélizaire painting has unfolded in the midst of a broader reckoning within the art world itself as it begins to acknowledge a long-ignored legacy of racism, colonialism, and the role of cultural identity in art. While the deliberate erasure of an enslaved young man in the context of America’s sordid history of slavery is a raw, visible reminder of that legacy, there are even deeper ramifications about inherent cultural prejudices when one considers how—and more importantly, where—art is actually exhibited. These biases challenge (and sometimes threaten) our traditional assumptions about the rightful ownership of art, who has the right to display it, and even how our understanding of history itself should be viewed.

One of the most controversial issues currently roiling the art establishment is how to satisfactorily account for objects and artifacts obtained through colonialist occupation and outright plunder. Should the British Museum, for example, continue to display art objects such as statues and totems that were taken by force from Indigenous cultures during Britain’s long history of colonialism? Or should those works be returned to their countries of origin? There are, as you might suspect, passionate arguments on both sides. (The British museum even has a section of its website titled “Contested Objects from the Collection,” although that section does not emphasize, for example, the fact that the museum contains over 70,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa alone.) 

The Netherlands also has an enormous cache of ostensibly “stolen” art—amounting to hundreds of thousands of artifacts and objects—dating back from the time of Dutch colonial expansion. And while an advisory committee to the Dutch government recommended (in 2020) that those artifacts be returned, the number of actual objects sent back by the Netherlands to their places of origin remains only (thus far) in the hundreds.

France has appeared even less willing to return items: Nearly three years passed after a similar recommendation was made for France to return 26 artifacts taken from the kingdom of Dahomey (now part of present-day Benin) before those objects were actually returned. In the interim—despite a public commitment to return stolen items passionately voiced by France’s president Emmanuel Macron—only a single sword was returned by France to Senegal, for example. 

Quite understandably (and as was vividly demonstrated in one of the opening scenes of the Marvel film “Black Panther”), museums in general are loathe to part with their “disputed” holdings, even if it means they are—as some view it—condoning, if not validating, the seizure of stolen goods. The arguments mustered by these museums (and their host nations) in support of continuing to retain art objects wrongfully taken during their colonialist adventures predictably focus on accessibility. But as noted by Nigerian art historian and professor Chika Okeke-Agulu in the CBC, that argument incorporates its own inherent bias:

Think about what this is implying: that some kid from Nigeria can always go to the British Museum or the Metropolitan Museum … to look at Benin bronzes.

When people sit in Europe and America and talk about the access of these things to the world, they are talking [about] access to people from Europe and America, and maybe from some of the rich Asian countries. People hardly are able to travel from the African continent to go to Europe to see these objects, so just give me a break. Of course they have them, so they can afford to say, “Well, we keep them for the rest of the world.”

As observed by Charly Wilder, writing for The New York Times, the thorny question of art’s rightful “ownership” also introduces an ethical dimension to the experience of those who view it.

Western museums are major tourist attractions, drawing travelers from around the world. But what responsibility do we bear as spectators for patronizing institutions that display what critics say are stolen works? Should we be asking how these museums got their treasures? Does our conception of a modern-day ethnological museum need a dramatic rethink?

“There has been a great change of consciousness in the last years,” said Gilbert Lupfer of the German Lost Art Foundation, the world’s most extensive database for the search for Nazi-looted art. “More and more, visitors of museums have become interested in questions of provenance.” And most of them, he said, realize that works with a problematic provenance “can’t remain in the museum.”

Much like Bélizaire’s “erasure” from a painting conceived in the antebellum South now highlights uncomfortable truths about the American experience, such questions about the “provenance” of art inevitably collide with historical realities that nations and their citizens are often unwilling to acknowledge about themselves.

But that’s a quality of art to be celebrated, even if it makes some of us—even whole nations—uncomfortable. It’s simply another reminder that—unlike the humans that create it, display it, or view it—the nature of art itself remains stubbornly immortal.

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September 2023