The Metropolitan Museum of Art has acquired the first naturalistic portrait of a named Black subject in the American antebellum South in its American Wing collection, a c. 1837 painting of 15-year-old Bélizaire with the children of the family that enslaved him. The work, attributed to the French, New Orleans-based artist Jacques Guillaume Lucien Amans, represents an individualistic depiction of an enslaved person and the family of their enslaver that is considered extremely rare. The figure of Bélizaire was painted over approximately 50 years later, but after a century, “Bélizaire and the Frey Children” (c. 1837) has been restored to its original composition. It will go on view at The Met this fall.
The Frey family enslaved Bélizaire and his mother Sally in 1828. Sally likely worked as the household cook while Bélizaire worked inside the family’s home in New Orleans’s French Quarter. Frederick Frey was a German-born merchant and his wife Coralie D’Aunoy Favre was from a long line of wealthy New Orleanians. The couple’s three children — Elizabeth, Léontine, and Frederick Jr. — sit below Bélizaire in the portrait, gazing toward the viewer while Bélizaire looks away, seemingly in contemplation as he stands confidently with his arms crossed.
Within a few years of the portrait’s execution, all three Frey children had died. The family plunged into debt, and in 1857, Bélizaire was relocated to a Louisiana sugar farm now known as the Evergreen Plantation.
The story of Bélizaire’s (and the Freys’) life has been uncovered in recent years by historian Katy Morlas Shannon. She was hired by Jeremy K. Simien, a Baton Rouge collector who had purchased the painting from a Virginia antiques dealer, who had acquired the work from a Christie’s auction. Before that, “Bélizaire and the Frey Children” was in the collection of the New Orleans Museum of Art. Bélizaire’s image was still hidden, and the institution told the New York Times that it hadn’t displayed the painting due to its poor condition and unidentified subjects. After the museum sold the portrait, the work was restored and Bélizaire’s image reemerged.
Judging by the cracks in the paint, conservator Craig Crawford thinks Bélizaire was painted out around 1900, during a time of deepening segregation and violence toward Black people in the American South.
“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,” Shannon told the New York Times.
Although the portrait’s painter was a White man, a few prominent freed Black artists lived and worked in New Orleans in the decades leading up to the Civil War, and freed Black people were sometimes able to achieve economic success in the city. Painter Julien Hudson was among them: He studied in France and rendered portraits of the upper echelons of New Orleans society in the mid-1800s.
In a statement shared with Hyperallergic, Sylvia Yount, The Met’s curator in charge of the American Wing, called the painting “transformative” for the department. Yount stated that the work “allows us to address many collection absences and asymmetries” as the museum approaches the American art department’s centennial.