Bélizaire, an enslaved black teenage boy, has been restored to a painting from which he was erased, now on display at the Met.
Bélizaire was a household slave of the Freys, a wealthy white family living in New Orleans’ French Quarter in the mid-1800s. In 1837, when reknowned painter Jacques Aman was hired to paint Frederick Frey’s three children, he included Bélizaire standing casually behind them.
It’s a curious painting. The three white children, a teenage girl and her younger brother and sister, are depicted on the banks of a tiny stream in a marsh or swamp. The eldest daughter is all in white, perhaps showing that she’s come of age, and she holds a tiny book, her fingertip marking her page. All three are smiling.
Bélizaire is not. He’s shown behind and above them, leaning against a tree behind the knoll they’re sitting on. He’s dressed well, but not as formally as they, and his arms are casually crossed. Alone out of the three, he isn’t looking at the viewer, but off to the side in disinterest. He looks almost annoyed to be there. He was 15. He will be the only one in the painting to survive to adult-hood.
Sometime around the turn of the 20th century, a member of the Frey family took exception to his being included in the painting. They overpainted him, extending the background to erase him from the composition. Erasing him for over a century.
But the painting was purchased in 2021 by collector Jeremy K. Simien. When he sent it for restoration by conservator Craig Crawford, the overpainting was discovered, and undone, revealing Bélizaire. He was identified by Lousiana historian Katy Shannon, who found his name and birth year, 1822, in census records. She found that the Freys bought Bélizaire when he was six years old, and he was a servant of their children. The family sold him to pay off their debts, bought him back, and sold him again in 1856, where he vanishes from census records.
Now properly titled “Bélizaire and the Frey Children,” the painting is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
(I couldn’t find anything in Shutterstock, but this image is credited as being in the public domain)