The Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired an important painting attributed to Jacques Guillame Lucien Amans, the French neoclassical painter who worked in New Orleans in the late 1830s through the 1850s. The painting, titled Bélizaire and the Frey Children, of ca. 1837, represents one of the rarest and most fully documented American portraits of a Black individual depicted with the family of his White enslaver. The painting will go on view in Gallery 756 of the American Wing this fall.
Max Hollein, The Met’s Marina Kellen French Director and CEO, said: “Bélizaire and the Frey Children is a highly significant addition to The Met’s collection and a further step on our path to broadening and diversifying the narratives in our galleries. The deeply compelling and rare painting carries immense historical and artistic significance, and represents an important milestone in our ongoing commitment to sharing profound stories of identities and place, as well as memory and erasure.”
Sylvia Yount, Lawrence A. Fleischman Curator in Charge of the American Wing at The Met, said: “The acquisition of this rare painting is transformative for the American Wing, representing our first naturalistic portrait of a named Black subject set in a Southern landscape—a work that allows us to address many collection absences and asymmetries as we approach the 100th anniversary of the Wing’s founding in 2024.”
Amans was commissioned by the successful German-born merchant and banker Frederick Frey (d. 1851), whose three-story home stood on Royal Street in the French Quarter. The painting prominently depicts the enslaved Afro-Creole teenager, Bélizaire (ca. 1822-after 1860), along with the three Frey children in his care—Elizabeth, Léontine, and Frederick Jr. Bélizaire was painted out of the composition by a member of the Frey family in the late 19th or early 20th century, and only recently uncovered. Through careful conservation and historical research, the identities of the White children and the enslaved teenage domestic, Bélizaire, have been named, revealing the complex relationships of intimacy and trauma that slavery bred.
This distinctive work, with its inherent tension between inclusion and distancing, offers a fascinating reflection on the nuanced racial climate of New Orleans in the antebellum period. Placed against a representative, bucolic Louisiana landscape, the solemn and well-dressed Bélizaire is sensitively portrayed in a highly observed and dignified manner, set above and apart from the Frey children. The work is also a moving recognition of loss—two of the children, Elizabeth and Léontine, died the same year the portrait was painted—as well as an act of recovery.
Elizabeth Kornhauser, Curator Emerita at The Met, said: “The Parisian artist Jacques Amans received this important commission shortly after his arrival in New Orleans in 1836. With great skill, he revealed the nuanced racial tension of the time in the composition, portraying fifteen-year-old Bélizaire lost in thought and subtly set apart from the children of his White enslaver.”
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