For decades, an unsettling portrait of Yale University’s namesake and early benefactor, British American colonist Elihu Yale, carried a maddeningly incomplete description. The painting shows four white men in costly 18th-century outfits posing around a table, with Yale at the center. As the men smoke and sip madeira, Yale’s grandchildren play in the field behind them.
In the right corner of the canvas, a child of African descent pours wine for the group. He wears fine red and grey clothes and—most disturbingly—a silver collar locked around his neck.
First donated to the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA) in 1970 and exhibited sporadically over the past five decades, the painting was initially displayed with wall text that listed the men’s titles but did not mention the enslaved child at their side. When the gallery was rehung in 2016, a new line acknowledged little beyond the boy’s apparel: “Nothing is known ... except that his livery identifies him as a servant, and the padlocked collar indicates that he is enslaved.”
Unanswered questions about the enslaved child haunted New Haven resident Titus Kaphar when he first saw the portrait in 2016. Inspired, the artist painted Enough About You, which warps the 18th-century work beyond recognition, save for the boy’s portrait, which is framed in gold.
Kaphar’s subject stares directly at the viewer and does not wear a collar. As the artist told Terence Trouillot of Artnet Newsin 2019, “I decided to physically take action to quiet [and crumple] the side of the painting that we’ve been talking about for a very long time and turn up the volume on this kid’s story.”
Four years after Kaphar created Enough About You, the YCBA embarked on a project to do just that. Last fall, after a landmark summer of protests against racial injustice, director Courtney J. Martin decided to temporarily remove the Yale group portrait from view. The museum hung Kaphar’s painting, on an eight-month loan from private collectors in California, in its place.
Meanwhile, a group of five YCBA employees volunteered to research the enslaved child and his portrait in new depth. Software engineer Eric James, senior curatorial assistant Abigail Lamphier, senior library assistant Lori Misura, coordinator of cataloging David K. Thompson and assistant curator Edward Town published their initial findings online earlier this year. Viewers can explore the report via the YCBA website and the related Yale and Slavery Research Project website.
As of this week, members of the public can once again view the reinstalled Yale portrait, bolstered by rewritten wall texts that add newfound historical context to the image, as Nancy Kenney reports for the Art Newspaper.
“How long will it stay [up]? That’s the answer I don’t have just yet,” Martin tells the Art Newspaper. “The conversation is evolving.”
The painting’s new label holds several revelations from the researchers. Whereas previous estimates had dated the portrait to 1708, chemical analysis conducted in the past year now suggests that it was completed around 1719. The experts also ascribed the formerly unattributed work to John Verelst, a Dutch portraitist working in Britain during that period, and retitled it Elihu Yale With Members of His Family and an Enslaved Child.
Though the team has yet to uncover the identity of the Black child, Town tells Smithsonian that he still has hope. Scholars sometimes argue that European artists did not paint people of African or Indian descent from real-life models but instead invented from fabricated stereotypes—an assumption that strikes Town as “unsatisfying and wrong.”
“The full story hasn’t yet been told,” he says. Recovering the child’s biography “might prove impossible, but it is still the goal here.”
Despite lacking a name for the child, the YCBA team has managed to flesh out some details of his life and status. Based on input from pediatricians, the team estimates that he was about 10 years old. He would have been one of many people, mostly boys under the age of 10, taken from their families in British colonies in Africa and India and forced to work as enslaved “pages” in the households of wealthy white men. (This work in particular was probably painted at Yale’s house in London.)
The child’s enslavers also forced him to wear a padlocked collar. As the Art Newspaper reports, this was a common practice: YCBA researchers have identified at least 50 other paintings made in Britain between 1660 and 1760 that depict enslaved individuals wearing similar collars, sometimes engraved with an enslaver’s name or other identifying marks.
“This collar is not used to tether someone to another set of chains, in the way that a similar-looking object would be in Jamaica or Barbados at the same time,” says Town. Rather, “[o]ne of the invidious, cruelest things about it is that these collars would have been highly finished, high-status objects.” As instruments of control, the bands symbolically marked their wearers as enslaved and prevented them from easily running away.
Town is careful to qualify that the precise details of this child’s bondage would have differed from the experiences of enslaved people in the British colonies, where slavery was codified by law. Chattel slavery technically had “no legal basis” in England, per Historic U.K. But many Black people were forced to work in British households in “an ill-defined but often violently enforced state of what historians have characterized as ‘slavish servitude,’” the researchers write. (The slippery legal semantics around enslavement within Britain’s shoreline would later be tested in court, most notably in the 1772 case of James Somerset, adds Town.)
The child’s precise relationship with the four men in the painting is likewise unclear. Some clues have come to light: for instance, the man standing at Yale’s shoulder is newly identified as David Yale, the patriarch’s adopted heir. He looms over Lord James Cavendish, to the left of Yale, and a figure now identified as Yale’s son-in-law William Cavendish, on the right.
In other words, this is a family portrait that Yale likely commissioned near the end of his life to promote his power and legacy, says Town. Born in 1649 in Boston, the merchant made his fortune during a 20-year tenure working for (and stealing from) the East India Company in present-day Chennai (then called Madras). He later retired in luxury to Wales and England. In 1718, he donated a set of expensive goods to the future Yale University, lending the young Connecticut college its name.
Town and historian Teanu Reid note that the extent of Yale’s direct involvement in the trade of enslaved people remains unclear. But other scholars argue that he certainly would have benefited and profited from the trade indirectly, as Mark Alden Branch reported for Yale Alumni magazine last year.
No known written records prove that Yale personally enslaved people. His private papers are missing—a fact that further complicates efforts to determine how the young boy ended up painted into a group portrait. This lack of a paper trail means that researchers can’t say for certain whether Yale or one of his relatives claimed ownership of the child.
That being said, “[f]or me, it’s splitting hairs, because they’re all one social and economic and familial unit,” says Town.
Research into the boy’s identity and story is ongoing. Archivists are currently investigating regional archives located near the estates of Yale and his sons-in-law, who owned properties in Suffolk, Buckinghamshire and Derbyshire, for clues about their lives, businesses and households, per the Art Newspaper.
While Yale’s relationship to the institution of slavery is subject to historical debate, he was certainly comfortable sitting for portraits that featured enslaved people. Of the seven painted likenesses of Yale in the university’s holdings, three depict him alongside an enslaved person: the aforementioned family portrait attributed to Verelst, a rendition of the same group on copper and a separate full-length portrait that once hung in the university’s Corporation Room. The last of these, which was removed from public view in 2007 due to its racist themes, shows an enslaved adult of Indian or South Asian heritage walking up to Yale and holding out a letter. The artist, James Worsdale, attempts to marginalize the figure of the servant, depicting him as emerging from the shadows and rendering him as slight compared to Yale’s imposing bulk.
Similarly, Verelst painted the young African boy in the corner of his group composition. In a 2014 YCBA exhibition, curators asked attendees to disobey these visual cues and instead consider the enslaved child in the portrait as if he were the focus of the work. As Kaphar demonstrated with Enough About You, artists can encourage members of the public to “reframe” portraits like Elihu Yale, literally and figuratively.
“I wanted to find a way to imagine a life for this young man that the historical painting had never made space for in the composition: his desires, dreams, family, thoughts, hopes,” Kaphar told Artnet News in 2019. “Those things were never subjects that the original artist wanted the viewer to contemplate.”