The story at the heart of this acquisition is one of restoration and erasure. A report by Alexandra Eaton for the New York Times chronicled the complicated journey of the painting to the Met, bringing to light its true story, which begins in New Orleans’ French Quarter in the 1830s. At the time, Frederick Frey is a wealthy banker and merchant who commissions French painter Jacques Guillaume Lucien Amans to create a portrait of his three children, Léontine, Elizabeth and Frederick Jr. In the painting, you could make out a figure who also stood by the children, leaning against a tree, but in the years since it was painted, that figure had been erased, leaving only an aura, a suggestion of someone who had been intentionally removed from the picture.
Halfway through a hot August in New York, as the city was emptied out and (relatively) quiet, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced its acquisition of a painting with a rather unconventional backstory. At first glance, the painting doesn’t seem particularly noteworthy, a 19th century scene of four children posing for a portrait in nature, the colours are sombre and generally unremarkable, you might walk right past it and not think twice. But after closer inspection, something stands out about the picture. In fact, Bélizaire and the Frey Children, of ca. 1837 is one of the rarest paintings depicting a young man of African descent, Bélizaire, surrounded by the children of the family of his White enslaver. The painting, attributed to French neoclassical painter Jacques Guillaume Lucien Amans, was actually later painted over by a Frey family member, concealing Bélizaire from the picture for decades to come. The restored painting will hang this Autumn in the Met’s American Wing so let us tell you all about this incredible story ahead of its grand opening.
It is speculated that the painting had been altered by a descendant of Frederick Frey, during the Jim Crow era, and before the great-great granddaughter of Frey’s wife Coraline donated it to the New Orleans Museum of Art in 1971. She mentioned that she believed that an enslaved child had been removed from the painting. But the museum never cleaned or analysed the piece so it was put into storage for over 30 years. Eventually, the piece was put up for auction in 2005 and sold for $6,000 to a Virginian antiques dealer. When speaking to the Times about the decision to sell the work, the Museum’s former director said: “I think in hindsight it was a mistake,”. The portrait was then restored, bringing to light the missing piece of this artistic puzzle.
The painting revealed that a young enslaved boy had in fact been concealed. According to the Times, the Frey family owned multiple slaves, one of which has been identified as the young boy in the painting, Bélizaire, who would have been fifteen years old when the portrait was made, and who would have been tasked with taking care of the Frey children. Records show that Bélizaire had been purchased by the family at the age of 6 and was subsequently sold in 1856 to the Evergreen Plantation. Unfortunately, what became of him after that remains unknown for now.
The story of this mystery-ridden painting caught the attention of art restorator Jeremy K. Simien in 2021, who was moved by the boy’s story, explaining that “It was the fact he was covered up that haunted me”. He acquired the work and, with the help of historian Katy Morlas Shannon, he worked to further restore it and to uncover more information about it and about Bélizaire. His wish was that the painting would hang in a museum, for all to see, so that Bélizaire’s story, which had been hidden away for decades, would finally be told. That wish was granted when the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired it in 2023.
In a press release made by the museum on August 14 2023, Sylvia Yount, Lawrence A. Fleischman Curator in Charge of the American Wing at The Met, said: “The acquisition of this rare painting is transformative for the American Wing, representing our first naturalistic portrait of a named Black subject set in a Southern landscape—a work that allows us to address many collection absences and asymmetries as we approach the 100th anniversary of the Wing’s founding in 2024.”, demonstrating the importance of the addition of this work to the museum’s permanent collection.
The painting will be on display in the Met’s American Wing as of Autumn 2023, making for a perfect excuse to revisit the museum. You can find out more about practicalities concerning visiting the Met here. The hope is that being part of such a major collection will encourage further research into the piece and into Bélizaire’s life, as well as artistic representations of African American persons.