Ghosting History: Looking for Bélizaire (1822-?)
We live in an era when some prefer the history they think they know and desperately want to believe, to the history that is factual. Sometimes the evidence rests in plain sight. At others, its absence raises questions that someone keeps asking. Often enough, those absences came about intentionally, quite literally changing a view of history. The story of an 1837 painting suggests the usefulness of looking for ghosts--for absences. Jeremy K. Simien, based in Louisiana, is someone who noticed and sought out a shadowy absence.
Jacques Amans, Bélizaire and the Frey Children, c. 1837. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Left, restored version; Right, overpainted version (c.1900) with "shadow" of Bélizaire on right side.
Image from: Alexandra Eaton. (14 August 2023). "'His name was Bélizaire': Rare portrait of enslaved child arrives at the Met." New York Times.
Simien had first been intrigued by the restored "before" image and then later found an "after" image, with Bélizaire' ghostly shadow. He described his disquiet the latter by saying, "the fact that he was covered up haunted me." Simeon hired historian, Katy Morlas Shannon, who was able to discover more.
In 1822's New Orleans' French Quarter a boy named Bélizaire was born to Sallie and a presently unknown father. While owned by his original enslavers, all but one of his brothers and sisters were sold away. At age 6, he and his mother were sold to Frederick Frey, whose family lived a life of luxury in New Orleans, owning other enslaved people. Domestic servant roles for both he and his mother kept them in intimate contact with the family. At about 15, Bélizaire was featured in a portrait of the Frey children, a scene of "domestic tranquility" even as all the Frey children would die before reaching adulthood and Bélizaire was in bondage. In 1856, as Frey's business had struggled and then he died, his widow sold Bélizaire to Evergreen Plantation. When the Civil War came, Belizaire was listed as inventory there. Then, New Orleans fell to the Union. The trail ends, at least for now, for Bélizaire and his family, even as plenty is known about the Frey family and their descendants. They survive quite visibly in the historical record, well into the present.
In the past "we weren't asking all the right questions," stated Betsy Kornhauser, Metropolitan Museum of Art's curator for American paintings and sculpture, who oversaw the acquisition. Essentially: what's missing? Is the history we tell ourselves accurate? What questions should institutions be asking even if it creates discomfort? What might we notice if we looked--and wanted to know? And if we notice, even know, do we push it aside, relegate it to an attic or de-accession list?
The painting has its own history that speaks to absences as well as institutional neglect and lack of curiosity. A fuller account is available in a New York Times video that accompanies an article: "'His name was Bélizaire': Rare portrait of enslaved child arrives at Met". (NYTimes, 14 August, 2023).
Simien had been curious about the painting since first noticing it in 2013 but found it and purchased it in 2021, frustrated with promises not kept--or acted on too slowly--by New Orleans Museum of Art. Hopefully further research will uncover more about Bélizaire. As Simien concludes, Bélizaire is "somebody who is worthy of being remembered or known."
Notice what draws our attention, what stands out to us. But then? Once we see what we think is visible, we can start asking questions about what's visible--and what's not, about the conspicuous absences. Discovery--and often enough, discomfort--awaits. Embrace both.