As we saw in the powerful period piece film Chevalier that released back in April, Black history is filled with many gaps that unfortunately were put there due to a still-ongoing global issue with racism towards minorities. From having inventions stolen and even our DNA robbed, to often being erased from the history books altogether, African Americans specifically have a lot more to learn when it comes to filling in those cultural blanks.
A good example of that erasure hit us over the head earlier this week when it was revealed that a 19th-century painting by French portraitist Jacques Amans of three Louisiana white children had actually been covered up to hide a fourth child: an enslaved boy named Bélizaire.
Soon to be on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and also renamed “Bélizaire and the Frey Children” following its 2005 restoration, the revelation made for a strong reminder that even the prestigious and ambiguous art world wasn’t exempt from the extent of racism in America and across the world.
More details on this eye-opening art find below, via The New York Times:
“Jeremy K. Simien, an art collector from Baton Rouge, spent years trying to find ‘Bélizaire’ after seeing an image of it online in 2013, following its restoration, that featured all four figures. Intrigued, he kept searching, only to find an earlier image from 2005, after the painting had been de-accessioned by the New Orleans Museum of Art and was listed for auction by Christie’s. It was the same painting, but the Black child was missing. He had been painted out.
‘The fact that he was covered up haunted me,’ Simien said in an interview.
For years, Simien looked for the painting in old auction records, catalogs and photo archives. He asked friends if anyone had seen it and someone had, in an antiques shop in Virginia. From there Simien tracked the painting to a private collection in Washington, D.C., and eventually purchased it for an undisclosed amount.
At the time, he didn’t know who any of the people in the portrait were. But he was drawn to the story of the Black youth and the attempt to erase him.
‘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.’”
What Simien ended up finding out was that Bélizaire was born circa 1822 in the French Quarter to a woman named Sallie and an unknown father. After his brothers and sisters were sold away, he and his mom were sold to banker Frederick Frey who eventually had the piece in question commissioned. Bélizaire is believed to be 15 in the portrait, which itself is suggested to be from 1837. Records state that he lived to at least see his late 30s, maybe even 40s, before his trail stops when the Civil War began in 1861.
Researchers came to the conclusion that Bélizaire’s infamous cover-up occurred around 1900. Being that the painting was in possession of the Frey family for over a century, it’s assumed that segregation persuaded a later generation to remove Bélizaire, with Louisiana historian Katy Morlas Shannon telling NYT, “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.”
The Black art history lesson we collectively received this week was so eye-opening that it inspired us to highlight a few other Black artworks made throughout history in order to assure everyone sees how vibrant, expressive and gallery-worth Black culture is in general.
From the centuries-spanning Kinsey Collection to an astounding piece by Kehinde Wiley that will make you say “hee-hee” and “hee-haw,” check out 10 historic Black artworks below that everyone should know about in our opinion:
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Bélizaire And Beyond: 10 Historic Black Artworks Worth Knowing About was originally published on blackamericaweb.com