The Erased Portrait: Unveiling the Hidden Story of Bélizaire

The Enigmatic Family Portrait: A detailed view of the artwork, highlighting the three prominent white children with the subtle

For over a century, a family portrait concealed a profound secret. A fourth figure, an enslaved child, had been deliberately painted out. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recent acquisition of this painting, one of the rare 19th-century artworks that authentically depict an enslaved individual, unveils a narrative of the deliberate erasure of Black figures in American history.

The painting’s journey to the Met began with Jeremy K. Simien, an art collector who chanced upon the artwork in an auction record. Although unsigned, Jeremy believed its style resembled that of the famed portraitist Jacques Amans. Intriguingly, an earlier auction record showed the enslaved child covered up. This discovery haunted Jeremy, propelling him on a quest to uncover the painting’s history.

The narrative traces back to Eugene Grasser, a descendant of the white children in the portrait. Family lore spoke of a “favorite slave” included in the artwork but later painted out. Inherited by Eugene’s mother, Audrey, the painting spent decades in a garage until its donation to the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) in 1972. Despite being informed of the hidden figure, the museum relegated the painting to storage for 32 years.

Mia L. Bagneris, a professor of art history and Africana studies, highlights the painting’s story as one of “institutional neglect.” NOMA’s justification for its neglect centered on the unknown identities of the artist and sitters. Yet, as Bagneris points out, many artworks featuring people of African descent remain unidentified but are still deserving of scholarly attention.

In 2004, NOMA auctioned the painting. An antiques dealer acquired it for $6,000 and undertook its restoration, revealing the obscured figure. Jeremy eventually procured the painting in 2021, initiating a second restoration and a deep dive into its history.

Katy Shannon, specializing in tracing seemingly lost individuals, embarked on a mission to identify the boy. Her research led to Coralie D’Aunoy Frey, a wealthy relative of the Grasser family. Census records from the 1830s pinpointed a mixed-race boy named Bélizaire as the likely subject. Bélizaire, a domestic close to the Frey household head, was around 15 when portrayed. The painting’s serene domesticity starkly contrasts with Bélizaire’s reality, where he could be sold at any moment.

After the death of Frederick Frey, Coralie sold Bélizaire to Evergreen Plantation on Christmas Eve, 1856. Subsequently, Bélizaire was painted out, likely around the turn of the century, a period marked by the rise of Jim Crow laws. Bélizaire’s fate post-1861 remains unknown. In 2023, the Met acquired the painting for its permanent collection, thanks to Jeremy’s efforts. The painting’s story underscores the importance of re-examining museum storage for overlooked treasures and the necessity of preserving and showcasing the often-neglected narratives of Black history.

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