Portrait of enslaved teen from New Orleans ends up at New York’s Metropolitan Museum

Back in 1837, Bélizaire was the Black or mixed-race domestic servant of the Freys, a wealthy, White, French Quarter family. The enslaved 15-year-old was apparently such an important part of the household that when a renowned artist painted a group portrait of the Frey family’s three kids, he included Bélizaire, standing casually behind them.

But then, an estimated 60 years later during the Jim Crow era, someone blotted Bélizaire out, blending him into the background of the painting, trying to make it look like he’d never existed.

Now, Bélizaire is not just visible again, he’s found a new home in one of the world’s greatest art-viewing venues, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

According to Jeremy K. Simien, an astute collector of historic Louisiana art who sold the painting to the Met, the antebellum portrait “should highlight New Orleans’ culture, the good, the bad, the Black, White and gray, the whole fusion.”

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Jeremy K. Simien encountered an enigmatic 1837 New Orleans painting on the Internet, which included the compelling image of an enslaved teen named Bélizaire. His hunt for the artwork took years. (Photo courtesy Jeremy K. Simien) Painting of enslaved teen Bélizaire

A descendant of the Frey family donated the portrait of the Frey children, with Bélizaire hidden beneath a layer of paint, to the New Orleans Museum of Art in 1972, though the timeworn canvas was never placed on display. Despite the fact that the painting included evidence of the intriguing, hidden figure that was rumored to be an enslaved person, the museum sold it in 2005 for $7,000.

Sometime in the 20-teens an owner of the painting hired a conservator to remove the paint that had blanketed Bélizaire for probably the entire 20th century, revealing the enslaved youth.

Simien, a former recording engineer and advertising consultant of African descent, said he has a special interest in artworks that reflect what he calls “hidden history” or “corrective history.” So, when he learned of the rediscovered young Black man in the antebellum New Orleans painting, he began searching for it, and eventually bought it for an undisclosed amount in 2021.

Simien enlisted Louisiana historian Katy Shannon to delve into the history of Bélizaire and the Freys. Everything they uncovered added to the painting’s resonance.

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In this 1972 Times-Picayune photo of the 1837 group portrait of the Frey children, the ghostly outline of the enslaved teen Bélizaire can be seen in the upper right. 

The painting implied the profound cruelty of slavery, but also the paradoxical familiarity between the free and enslaved. That familiarity may have been what caused Bélizaire to be blotted out as segregation became the law of the land after the Civil War. No one’s sure.

What is sure, is that in the 186 years since the painting was made, the focus has changed from a portrait of three privileged White children with an incidental domestic servant nearby, to a portrait of a magnetic Black teenager in the company of some incidental White children.

The mysterious painting, which was probably by famed portraitist Jacques Amans, became a sensation when it appeared on NOLA.com and in the Times-Picayune newspaper two years ago. In June 2022, the painting went on display at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, where New Orleanians could get their first public look ever.

Bélizaire’s fame exploded yet again on Monday, when a story about the portrait appeared on the cover of The New York Times, heralding its arrival at the Met.

Though the painting is not yet on public display, Simien said the museum has “rolled out the red carpet.” The painting is backstage in the Met, awaiting its place in the spotlight in one of the galleries.

Paintings of enslaved people are rare. As Metropolitan Museum curator Betsy Kornhauser told the Times, “I’ve been wanting to add such a work to the Met’s collection for the past 10 years, and this is the extraordinary work that appeared.”

Simien said that as much as he loved the painting, it belonged in a public institution.

“The aura was too great to be in a private collection,” he said. “I had a duty to place it somewhere with the best interpretation, the safest, where it wouldn’t be forgotten again.”

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In an 1837 painting, a Black teenager stands beside a trio of White children. A recent historical discovery found that the young New Orleanian was an enslaved household servant named Bélizaire.

Simien said it’s “bittersweet” to see the canvas leave the region and “too bad” that when it was in New Orleans Museum of Art collection, “it wasn’t seen as a priority.”

He had not offered the painting for sale until he was approached by “a very reputable” art broker that promised to place the painting in a “responsible and ethical” location, Simien said. That location turned out to be on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

Simien declined to say what he paid for the painting, or what he received for it from the Met. He said the New York museum “recognized the importance and were mindful of that.”

Symbolically, he said, it’s important to be sensitive to the concept of buying and selling the portrait of an enslaved person.

The Frey family, who had owned Bélizaire since he was 6, fell on hard times not long after the now-famous painting was produced, and sold him in 1841. They were able to buy him back, but later sold him again on Christmas Eve 1856.

“He’s been sold enough,” Simien said.

Bélizaire last appears in the historic record at age 39, at the start of the Civil War. No one knows what happened to him after that. But Simien hopes the acquisition of his portrait by the Met will inspire further study.

Email Doug MacCash at dmaccash@theadvocate.com. Follow him on Instagram at dougmaccash, on Twitter at Doug MacCash and on Facebook at Douglas James MacCash

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