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Art historians attempt to identify enslaved black child in 18th-century portrait

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This article was originally published by The Art Newspaper, an editorial partner of CNN Style.
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 criticism of the painting’s subject matter from students and others, the YCBA removed the artwork from a gallery wall and replaced it with a sharp critique of the African-American painter and sculptor Titus. Kaphar.

Around the same time, the museum embarked on extensive research into the portrait, which is now dated to around 1719 and was likely painted in Yale’s house in London. The identity of the black child was at the forefront in the minds of the research team. Creepily, he wears a silver collar and padlock around his neck, which was common for slaves in British society, with similar versions in steel or brass, according to the YCBA.

A detail of the 18th century group portrait, depicting an unknown black child with Elihu Yale, of whom Yale University was named. Credit: Courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art

The table should now be on display again 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,” Courtney said. J. Martin, the director of the museum, in a telephone interview.

Kaphar’s Retaliation, a 2016 painting titled “Enough About You,” collapsed the four white men in a crumpled blur and transformed the boy into a provocative, collar-stripped figure staring at the viewer from a golden frame. He remained visible at YCBA for six months. The artist told Artnet in 2019 that he wanted to “imagine a life” for the child, with “desires, dreams, family, thoughts, hopes” that the original 18th century artist – now considered an active Dutch in Britain named John Verelst – was indifferent to. The work exploited outrage at moral parodies past and present as well as the glaring gaps in representations of people of color today.
Art historians attempt to identify enslaved black child in 18th-century portrait

Titus Kaphar, “Enough About You” (2016). Credit: Richard Caspole / Courtesy of the artist

Aware of the criticism of Kaphar and others, Martin, who took over as director of the Yale Museum in 2019, commissioned research into the 18th-century painting, now renamed “Elihu Yale with Family Members and a Child.” slave ”last fall.

“People reached out to me and said, ‘Your institution has all these horrible paintings – what are you going to do about it?’,” She recalls.

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

“And then I slowly realized what they were talking about – that it was this painting,” she said 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. ”

A new study

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 and has important examples of William Hogarth, JMW Turner, Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds and many more.

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, according to 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 domestic servants in households. well-off. Thousands of black children and adults were bought there as “slave servitude”, researchers report, attesting to the nation’s investment in the transatlantic slave trade. The child would probably have served as a so-called “page” in the house of one of the men depicted.

Art historians attempt to identify enslaved black child in 18th-century portrait

A close-up view of “Enough for You” by Titus Kaphar. Credit: Richard Caspole / Courtesy of the artist

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

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

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

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 Yale, in the center, the man in the back left, it was believed to be a lawyer named James Tunstall who was negotiating a contract for the marriage of Yale’s daughter, Anne, to Lord James Cavendish. But now it 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.

Art historians attempt to identify enslaved black child in 18th-century portrait

“Elihu Yale with Members of His Family and a Child Slave”, attributed to John Verelst, ca. 1719. Credit: Courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art

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 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.

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 Yale’s grandchildren dance in a circle is Obadiah Shuttleworth (1698-1734), a music prodigy in London who has gave the children music and dance lessons, according to Martin. .

Research in progress

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 noted.

“Like a number of other East India Company officials who had enriched themselves” by making a profit in India, she said, “Yale has been derided by those in London jealous of her wealth. and deeming his past relatively modest. ” She added: “He was a member of a provincial nobility family who had emigrated to America but returned to Britain with sufficient fortune to negotiate marriage deals for his daughters with aristocratic families.

The etiquette of the painting 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 an image of a collared slave in “Mining the Museum,” Fred Wilson’s revealing 1992 installation exploring the collection of the Maryland Historical Society.
Art historians attempt to identify enslaved black child in 18th-century portrait

Section taken from the painting where analysis identified the Prussian blue pigment. Credit: Jessica david

In attempting to determine the identity of the child in the YCBA painting, researchers searched for all potentially relevant baptism, marriage and burial records in every parish in Camden, said Martin – who is ” 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 added.

The group portrait isn’t the only portrayal of Yale to spark dissent at the university, which has a total of seven paintings of its namesake as well as a snuffbox with his portrait on it. Although the YCBA notes that he is not known to have owned slaves, three of the seven paintings show him with a enslaved servant: in 2007 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. At a recent three-part online symposium hosted by the museum, the couple discussed the importance of the work with the artist. 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 haven’t yet. The conversation is moving.”

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