Around 1837, Frederick Frey, a German-born man living in Louisiana, commissioned a portrait of his three white children, as well as an enslaved Black child. Decades later, a family member painted over the boy, leaving the other three as they were.
Now, experts have restored the painting to its original state, revealing the enslaved youth who had been painted out of history. It will go on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art this fall.
The museum announced this week that it had acquired the portrait, which it described in a statement as “one of the rarest and most fully documented American portraits of a Black individual depicted with the family of his white enslaver.”
Museum-goers will soon be able to see the restored painting for themselves in the Met’s American Wing. There, the artwork’s presence will be “transformative,” says Sylvia Yount, curator of the wing, in the statement.
Titled Bélizaire and the Frey Children, the piece is the wing’s “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,” she adds.
The portrait’s journey is a long and complicated one. While living in New Orleans’ French Quarter, Frey, a merchant and banker, asked an artist—likely Jacques Guillaume Lucien Amans, a French neoclassical painter—to paint his three children: Elizabeth, Léontine and Frederick Jr. The artwork also included a fourth figure, a boy leaning against a tree behind them.
Per the New York Times’ Alexandra Eaton, the family owned a number of enslaved individuals. One of them was the boy in the painting: a 15-year-old named Bélizaire, who likely worked as the Frey children’s caretaker.
As Sarah Cascone writes for Artnet, the portrait depicts “surprising intimacy between the four children, suggesting that Bélizaire was a valued member of the household, despite his enslaved status.”
Why Bélizaire was later painted over, and who oversaw the erasure, is unclear, though experts think it happened during the Jim Crow era. Nevertheless, when Audrey Grasser—great-great granddaughter of Coralie Frey, Frederick’s wife—donated the portrait to the New Orleans Museum of Art in the 1970s, a faint shadow hinted that the work may have once featured a fourth subject. She told the museum that she believed the figure was an enslaved child.
The museum kept the painting in storage in its altered state until 2005, when it sold for $7,200 at auction. The buyer had the portrait restored, bringing Bélizaire back into view.
In 2021, Louisiana art and antiques collector Jeremy K. Simien tracked down and purchased the piece, restoring it for a second time. He also worked with Louisiana historian Katy Morlas Shannon to learn more about it. Using property and census records, she identified everyone in the portrait—including Bélizaire, who she determined had been born in 1822.
“The fact that he was covered up haunted me,” Simien tells the Times.
As the records would show, the Frey family had purchased Bélizaire when he was 6 years old, along with his mother, Sally. They sold him to the Evergreen Plantation in 1856. What became of him after that is unknown.
Simien wanted the piece to end up in a museum eventually—and now, with the Met’s acquisition, he’s getting his wish.
“The aura was too great to be in a private collection,” he tells the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate’s Doug MacCash. “I had a duty to place it somewhere … where it wouldn’t be forgotten again.”