What’s wrong with this picture? In an 1837 painting, a black teenager stands next to a trio of white children. A recent historical discovery tells us that the young New Orleans was a slave servant named Belisaire.
But his image in the painting does not exactly telegraph the submissive Belisaire station. He stands a little distance from the other children, but he is also well-dressed, and has a resolute effect. On his face, one sees the impatient expression of, well, the 15-year-old. Belizer was reportedly a victim of the inhumane institution of slavery, but in the painting he could be a peer, even a brother. The color of his skin is the main thing that distinguishes him.
Belizer’s exact role in the wealthy Royal Street family that held him captive for nearly three decades is a mystery. It is just one of many.
If Belizer was so prominent in the painting, why was it painted later, as if someone wished he had never been there? And why would someone in the modern age take so long to remove the paint and let them see it again?
Jeremy K. said: Simin, the owner of the artwork, it’s the kind of drawing that makes you ask, “What the hell is going on here?”
Willie Burch, one of the great painters and sculptors of New Orleans, moved out of his seventh studio not long ago.
Simien is 36 years old, a recording engineer in Baton Rouge who became an advertising consultant. He said his family had lived in Louisiana for 300 years and that he was of African descent. When he started collecting artwork 10 years ago, he sought out antique furniture, photographs, crafts, and paintings he produced, owned, or depicted people with a heritage like him.
In 1837, New Orleans was the main capital in the South, and the Fry family was pouring in. Simin said they lived in an elegant three-story cottage in the French Quarter on the current site of the Carousel Bar at the Montillion Hotel. Patriarch Frederick was a financier and possibly a foreign diplomat. Coralie, his wife, hails from a prominent family.
They acquired Belizeaire when he was six years old. It’s been in the house for nearly a decade when the family commissioned a superbly talented portrait painter to paint their children – Leontine, Elizabeth and Frederick Jr. – as well as the enslaved young men who attended. It may have been artist Jacques Amans, the French newcomer to New Orleans who would become the city’s number one painter, but it’s impossible to say for sure.
Despite the unreasonable realities of slavery, the artist captured a poignant moment of innocence when the three white children and the black teenager appeared to be on social equal footing, said Louisiana historian Katie Shannon, who helped Simin uncover the painting’s backstory. She said the Frey children “did not grow up to see themselves as slave owners.”
And they won’t. Shannon said the two Fry girls would die shortly after the photo was taken, possibly from yellow fever, which was rampant at the time. The son died a few years later. The Friese family had a third daughter who was too young to sit on the board. Only she and Belizeur will live into adulthood.
Shannon said there is no evidence to suggest that Belisaire was included in the family portrait because he was literally part of the Frey family, the product of an association between the owner and enslaved people somewhere along the line. But this is not impossible. Shannon said that some historical records indicate that Belizer may have been of mixed race.
Belizer is likely to be a charismatic kid and a family favourite. Shannon said that Belizer may have been “casting a shadow” over the Fry children for years as a butler.
It is important to draw a line
One way or another, it was intimate. This may have caused it to be erased from the painting by a later generation. Shannon said that interracial mixing within the family may have been taken for granted in the late 1830s, but 40 years later, things changed.
“After the Civil War, it was more important for the white elites to draw a line between the races,” Shannon said.
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Fry’s descendants may have felt that the apparent prominence of the black teenager in the sibling’s image was unbearable. So Beliser was written off.
Not long after the paint on the canvas had dried, an economic depression took hold of Crescent City and Frieze’s fortunes declined. Things got so bad, Shannon said, that in 1841 Belizere was sold to pay off family debts, although the Friese family quickly returned it. The family’s decline continued until 1856, when Fries was finally forced to sell Belizeaire once and for all.
Simin was a novice collector when he discovered the Belizeaire and the Fry Children board online while researching Louisiana subjects. He was fascinated. The painting passed through several hands at the time and it took years of digging to locate the owner who agreed to sell the painting to Simien at a price he did not wish to disclose.
Simien got the precious group photo just a few weeks ago in September and craved more information on the topics. So he recruited Shannon, a scholar he met via a social networking site devoted to the history of Creole, native-born residents of colonial Louisiana. Simin thought it would be perfect for the job, and he was right.
Make a call
Shannon is the chief of history and interpretation at Evergreen Ranch, located 40 miles west of New Orleans. A once sugarcane plantation is now a historic educational center. Shannon said that while studying the pedigree of the painting’s 1972 owners and recordings at NOMA, the lamp went off. I remembered that a enslaved person named Belizer had been sold to the owners of Evergreen in the mid-1800s by a guy named Frey.
To her surprise, Belizer seemed apt to describe the teenager in the painting with the letter T. So she digged deeper, flicking old ship lists, a census report, and other documents, to be sure.
“Belizer was the only one who fit all the metrics,” she said. He was “a local slave, a boy, of the right age, of mixed race, close to family, who was eventually sold.”
“All boxes have been checked,” she said.
By chance, Belisaire ended up on the farm where Shannon worked. She and Simin agree that, through superstition, she felt that the long-dead Belizer had sought after them, and not the other way around.
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Bélizaire disappears from the historical record – so far anyway – at Evergreen, which became a bustling camp for the Union Army during the Civil War. But the historical path of painting continued.
In 1972, a distant descendant of Frieze donated the picture to the New Orleans Museum of Art. No one knows exactly when Belizer was painted, but it was hiding behind a coat of oil paint by then. Mostly anyway.
In a report on donating the painting to NOMA, Times-Picayune art writer Alberta Collier noted that the outlines of the Belizeare are still visible.
“There is certainly a trace of a much larger fourth person bleeding through the background,” Collier wrote.
Collier also mentioned that there is a family legend that explains the ghostly character, whose gender was unknown at the time.
“Tradition says that this painting originally had another figure – the image of a slave in charge of childcare,” Collier wrote. “The story goes on to say that the father eventually got angry with the slave, sold him or her, and asked the artists to remove the figure from the composition.”
Apparently, Simin said, the curators of NOMA weren’t terribly fascinated by the 135-year-old painting. He said that it had never been cleaned, repaired, or displayed in the 30 years the museum had kept, and no one had ever sought to uncover the missing enslaved youth. In 2005, NOMA sold the canvas for $7,000 to an out-of-town dealer. Once again, Pelizer out of New Orleans.
Lisa Rotondo McCord, Deputy Director of Curatorial Affairs at NOMA, said selling artwork is a routine part of any museum’s practice. She said the painting was in poor condition, the identities of the artist and subjects were unknown, and there was no one on staff to try to track down such information.
Although the museum has always had a selection of Louisiana artwork and antiques on display, in the early 2000s, collecting regional works was not a focus. At the time, Rotondo McCord said, the museum allowed other institutions such as the State Museum, the New Orleans Historical Collection, and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, to focus on locally produced historical art.
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In 2019, Rotondo McCord said Simin told the museum that the painting, then known as “Four Children in a Louisiana Landscape,” had been restored. Numa had hoped to display the painting, but at the time, the identity of its owner was unknown.
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Sometime in the years after NOMA sold the painting, a restorer finally freed Belizeaire of the dye that had hidden it perhaps throughout the 20th century. The restoration of a seemingly self-confident enslaved teenager revealed a work of art that, in Simian’s view, illustrates the complex ethnic interactions that underpin the culture of Crescent City.
Cybéle Gontar, art historian and curator, said she has spent a decade studying portraits by early Louisiana portrait painters, and is planning an upcoming exhibition of the work of Jacques Amans. Guntar said she hasn’t seen Simin’s painting in person, but based on the photos, she thinks it could be the famous and prolific artist.
She said the children’s eyes look a bit exaggerated, but the way the girl in the center holds a book is typical of the Amans composition. But Güntar said in her opinion that the seemingly intimate place of Pellezer in the painting is not particularly mysterious.
“That makes some sense to me,” she said. “He almost looks like an older brother there, but he’s separated, and the artist pushed him away, and that means something.”
Guntar said there is precedent for a family to include a marginalized half-brother or enslaved servant in a piece of music “out of some affection”.
Simin said he is still “learning lessons” from the image that resonates deeply and hopes one day to display it in a “place where it is respected and properly interpreted.” Shannon said she is looking for information about the fate of Pelizer’s disappearance again.