Yale Center for British Art attempts to identify enslaved black child in 18th-century portrait of one of the university’s early benefactors



A year ago this month, while still closed to the public due to the pandemic, the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA) took an important step towards questioning a controversial group portrait from the 18th century in its collection centered on a first benefactor at the university, Elihu Yale. Responding to sharp criticisms of the subject of the painting from students and others, he deleted the work of a gallery wall, replacing it with a sharp critique of the African-American painter and sculptor Titus Kaphar.

Around the same time, the museum embarked on a research on the portrait, which is now dated to around 1719 and was probably painted in the house of Elihu Yale in London. The research team was primarily concerned with the identity of an African-born slave boy depicted in the work, who poured Madeira into glasses for the American-born philanthropist and three other privileged white men gathered around. of a table.

Frighteningly, the black child wears a silver collar and a padlock around his neck: while the collar was apparently not used to tie it to chains, it was clearly intended as a deterrent to escape.

The silver necklace worn by the slave boy in the painting was common for these captives in British society, with similar versions fashioned from steel or brass

The table should now be on display next week, with additional context provided by the research. And while the museum has yet to determine who the boy is or where he came from, it is moving forward with the belief that its investigation is “on much safer ground than before,” says Courtney Martin. , the director of the museum.

Kaphar’s Response, a 2016 painting titled Enough about you, collapsed the four white men in a crumpled blur and transformed the boy into a provocative personality, stripped of his collar, staring at the viewer from a golden frame. He remained visible at YCBA for six months. The artist said he wanted to “imagine a life” for the child, with “desires, dreams, family, thoughts, hopes” that the original 18th century artist – now considered a Dutchman active in Britain named John Verelst – was indifferent to. The work exploited outrage at moral parodies past and present as well as glaring gaps in representations of people of color today.

Titus Kaphar, Enough About You (2016). Courtesy of the artist, Photo: Richard Caspole.

Aware of criticism from Kaphar and others, Martin, who took over as director of the Yale Museum in 2019, commissioned research into 18th-century painting, now renamed Elihu Yale with family members and enslaved child, last fall. “People contacted me and said, ‘Your institution has all these horrible paintings, what are you going to do about it?’ “, She recalled in an interview.

At first, the review puzzled her, says Martin, “because I didn’t think it was true.”

“And then I realized little by little what they were talking about: that it was this painting, ”she says of the group portrait. “It was hard for me to hear because from my perspective as an art historian, it’s a minor painting by a minor artist, and we have major paintings by major artists. ” The YCBA has important examples of William Hogarth, JMW Turner, Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds and many more.

Acquired in 1970, the 18th-century painting was the first to officially enter the museum’s collection, initially built up through a huge donation to Yale of British works acquired by philanthropist Paul Mellon. The museum opened in 1977.

Focusing on the depiction of the enslaved child, the YCBA research team hired a pediatrician to estimate the boy’s likely age, which was determined to be around 10, says Martin. Drawing on records from the early 1700s, conservation investigators note that it was common then to send boys of African descent under the age of 10 to Britain to serve as household servants. well-off. The child would probably have served as a so-called page in the house of one of the men depicted.

While slavery was not legal in Britain at the time, thousands of black children and adults were bought there in “bonded servitude,” the researchers report, attesting to the nation’s investment in peace. transatlantic slave trade. The silver necklace worn by the boy was common for these captives in British society, with similar versions fashioned from steel or brass.

Why has so much effort been devoted to the study of what Martin considers a decidedly unimportant painting?

One response is the boy’s poignant plight, underscored by a contemporary focus on historical injustice. In the minds of museum enthusiasts, “if we put a painting like this out to the public, we validate it,” Martin explains. “The audience says, whatever you put in place, you believe it 100%.”

“I don’t think that’s true of this painting at all,” the director said, adding, “It’s hard for me as an art historian to give credit to this painting.” But as arts institutions address the racial and gender imbalances in their collections, each is “still in conversation about itself” and reassessing its presentations, Martin notes.

During their studies, largely conducted remotely, the Yale Museum team also revised their hypotheses about the four men depicted in the foreground of the painting, originally dated 1708. Besides Elihu Yale, in the center, the The man in the back left had been thought to be a lawyer named James Tunstall who was negotiating a contract for the marriage of Yale Anne’s daughter to Lord James Cavendish. Now the figure on the left-back is believed to be David Yale, who was chosen as Elijah Yale’s heir because the latter did not have a son. Technical analysis indicates that David Yale was later added to the painting, eclipsing an element of the landscape.

In the foreground on the left is Lord James Cavendish, whose identity has not been disputed by researchers. And to the right, they suggest, is another son-in-law, Dudley North, who married Elihu Yale’s daughter Catherine and lived near her stepfather in the Bloomsbury area of ​​Camden. This character was previously thought to be William Cavendish, James’ older brother and Second Duke of Devonshire, but comparisons to other portraits from the time show a convincing resemblance to North.

A cross section taken from the painting where analysis identified the Prussian blue pigment. Photo: Jessica David

The discovery by YCBA technicians of the Prussian blue pigment in North’s blue coat, a substance that was not used by artists in Britain until 1719, moved the presumed date of the painting from 1708 to between 1719 and 1721.

Researchers have also suggested that a man playing the violin in the background of the painting while Elihu Yale’s grandchildren dance in a circle is Obadiah Shuttleworth, a music prodigy in London who has taught lessons music and dance for children.

The team sees the work as a family portrait intended to solidify the legacy of Yale, a wealthy merchant and former colonial administrator in India, in his later years in London. His reputation was under attack, Martin notes. “Like a number of other East India Company officials who had enriched themselves” by making a profit in India, “Yale was ridiculed by those in London jealous of his wealth and deeming his past relatively modest.” , she says. “He was a member of a family of the provincial nobility who had emigrated to America, but returned to Britain with sufficient fortune to negotiate marriage agreements for his daughters with aristocratic families.”

The table label has been rewritten to emphasize the bondage of the enslaved boy. Researchers also identified at least 50 other paintings made in Britain between 1660 and 1760 that depict people of African descent with metal necklaces, reflecting the nation’s rootedness in the slave trade. Martin also mentions similar examples in the American colonies, reflected in a picture of a collared slave in Undermine the museum, the revealing 1992 Fred Wilson installation exploring the Maryland Historical Society’s collection.

Although researchers did not determine the identity of the black servant in the YCBA painting, they did research all potentially relevant baptism, marriage, and burial records in every parish in Camden, Martin says – “often the only place of registration for young men of African and Indian heritage who had served as servants in elite households ”. Yale and his sons-in-law also owned country houses in Suffolk, Buckinghamshire and Derbyshire, and research continues in church records, Martin adds.

The group portrait isn’t the only dissenting depiction of Elihu Yale at the university, which has a total of seven paintings by his namesake as well as a snuffbox with his portrait on it. Although he is not known to have owned slaves, three of the seven paintings show him with a enslaved servant: due to his racial overtones, Martin notes.

After the eight-month loan to YCBA, Kaphar’s critical counterpoint to the original painting was returned in May to its owners, Los Angeles contemporary art collectors Arthur Lewis and Hau Nguyen. In a three-part online symposium Recently summoned by the museum, the couple spoke with the artist about the scope of the work. The public was invited to share their thoughts on the two paintings.

As the museum prepares to return the 18th century group portrait to the gallery, Martin braces for the potential response.

“I don’t think anyone wants to validate the more negative aspects of painting,” she says. “How long is this going to stay?” That’s the answer I don’t have yet. The conversation is evolving. “


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