Extraordinary discoveries

Cecily Hughes, a second-year doctoral student in the department of Art History and Art studying with Professor Elina Gertsman, was surprised and delighted to learn that a painting she researched and wrote about for a private dealer had just been purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Bélizaire and the Frey Children,” was painted in 1837 and attributed to the painter Jacques Guillaume Lucien Amans (c.1801-1888). The New York Times ran a short video feature on the acquisition and the painting’s vexed history, a tale of the erasure and rediscovery of a Black enslaved person. While the likeness of a young Black man was featured in the original canvas, it was then painted out, only to be uncovered through later conservation. Now identified as the fifteen-year-old Bélizaire (b.1822–d. after 1860), the sitter was an enslaved domestic purchased by Frederick Frey of New Orleans, Louisiana on 16 February, 1828. As Hughes writes in her report on the work: “Bélizaire’s inclusion in Amans’ painting presents a potent interpretive challenge. Compositional elements betray a physical and physiological separation between the Black boy and the three white Frey children. However, Bélizaire is not simply a token presence, nor a status symbol without personality. Amans depicts Bélizaire in a highly-observed and sensitive manner. The tension between inclusion and distancing makes this work a captivating object of study and an important example of the nuanced racial climate of New Orleans in the early eighteen-hundreds.”