A conversation piece is something like a boldly colored necklace or a funky glass vase — an object of intrigue that often brings about, well, conversation. In the art history world, the same term designates a painting of a group of wealthy associates sitting together, also intended to start conversation among viewers but only about a specific topic: the status of its subjects. Since 2014, the Yale Center for British Art has been displaying one such piece featuring Elihu Yale, the University’s namesake. It was painted in 1708 to inspire dialogue about the mutually advantageous marriage being brokered between Elihu Yale’s daughter and the brother of the Duke of Devonshire. Today, the conversation that it starts concerns the identity of the young African boy depicted with a chain around his neck.
In the fall of 2015, Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway spoke at length about three paintings in his address to the incoming freshmen. Painted in the 18th century, they depict Elihu Yale with enslaved people as a sign of his wealth and power, Holloway noted. Two are in storage while the third — the very painting discussed in this article — is on display. All three force Yalies today to reconcile with the University’s past. “Is it possible to simultaneously hold conflicting feelings about a thing and its history?” Holloway asked. “Can we love Yale College and quarrel with the man who gave this place its name?”
There is a wall on the YCBA’s fourth floor whose sole purpose is to exhibit the third painting mentioned in Holloway’s address. At about 32 square feet, the wall boasts a physical presence equal to what the painting’s subjects, one imagines, would have wanted. The painting shows the Duke of Devonshire’s estate, where he, his brother, a lawyer named Mr. Tunstal and Elihu Yale sit around a table, arranging the marriage — preparing to exchange money for status. At the Duke’s left hand, the African boy serves Madeira wine. According to the YCBA website, “his fine red and grey livery (or uniform) identifies him as a servant, and the silver collar and padlock around his neck indicate that he is enslaved.”
The painting’s current title is “Elihu Yale; William Cavendish, the second Duke of Devonshire; Lord James Cavendish; Mr. Tunstal; and an Enslaved Servant.” In 2014, the curators of the YCBA decided to retitle the painting to accurately address the identity of the boy. The title was changed for the YCBA’s “Figures of Empire” exhibit, which took place three years before University President Peter Salovey announced that Calhoun College would be renamed. Though it is perhaps prosaic and practical, the epithet is a significant update. The previous title, held since the 1970s, when Andrew Cavendish, the 11th Duke of Devonshire, gave it to the University as a gift, identified the African boy simply as a “page.”
Claire Goldsmith ’18, a YCBA student guide, includes the piece in her tour on portrayals of trade and technology in the British Empire. She uses it as an example of the exploitation of foreign countries, which bolstered British economic prosperity in the 1700s. She pointed out that, like the silver candlesticks, Madeira and tobacco in the painting, the enslaved boy suggests “the networks of trade that underlay the growing prosperity of the British Empire.” Elihu Yale, seated prominently in the center of the portrait, was among those benefitted by this growing prosperity. Through his business with the East Indian Trade Company, Elihu Yale amassed a great fortune, from which came the donation that granted the University its name. Elihu Yale’s entanglements with British imperialism and the slave trade are unknown to a surprising number of Yale students and affiliates, Goldsmith remarked. As a result, the YCBA has the unique opportunity to spark larger conversations through art. “I think it’s extremely important that the piece is on display, shedding light on a previously ignored part of Yale’s history and an often-overlooked legacy,” she said.
Before “Figures of Empire” in 2014, the piece itself was also overlooked by curators. Matthew Hargraves, chief curator of art collections and head of collections information and access for the YCBA, said it had probably been in storage due to past curators’ discomfort with its subject matter. Another factor keeping it in storage was simple aesthetics — Hargraves admitted that it is “not the best painting from the 18th century.” It takes up the space that four other paintings could fill. Its historical merit secured its role in “Figures of Empire,” as the curators, Hargraves recalled, “felt strongly that the picture should be out and studied.”
The study resulted in the title’s modified terminology. “Page” was used initially to reflect the boy’s role as a household worker. However, in considering its presentation in “Figures of Empire,” the curators wanted to permanently change the title to reflect the obvious fact that the boy was not “merely a domestic servant.” Rather, he is an enslaved person, and with that comes a semantic distinction. Initially, curators tried diligently to recover the name of the boy in an attempt to bring him “out of the margins.” Unable to find any documentation about him, they felt that, while “slave” was too impersonal and general, using “enslaved person” preserved some of his agency and personhood.
Without any specific information, it becomes important to reflect on the significance that his presence gives to the painting. “The inclusion of an African figure in a position of servitude spoke to the wealth and prestige of the sitters in the portrait,” Hargraves said. At a time when British business was becoming increasingly entwined with the slave trade, an enslaved person reflected the subject’s wealth like silverware or lavish clothing. It read as a triumph of Western culture and power.
Research has been inconclusive, though, in identifying the boy as a member of the Devonshire household, the Elihu Yale household or even, perhaps, as an imaginary figure invented to communicate his master’s status. Looking at the painting today, viewers cannot fully divorce the image of the boy from the artist’s intention for him to stand as a status symbol. The three wigged men stare down from the canvas, imposingly shrouded in symbols of wealth. At the same time, many modern viewers of the painting are “surprised to see the portrayal of Elihu Yale and an enslaved servant displayed so prominently,” Goldsmith said. The boy is featured clearly, not in the center but certainly in the forefront. He is supposed to be noticed, but what once might have induced admiration in viewers now produces something closer to shock and discomfort.
Hargraves said he appreciates the YCBA’s role in presenting a controversial history so closely related to the University. As a teaching museum, it is able to encourage ongoing conversation and contemporary reexamination of art. When pieces are placed next to each others, they can be properly contextualized. “Including [them] in galleries can start discussion and debate,” Hargraves said. In this way, a viewer can better understand the underlying implications. With this painting’s position in the gallery, the YCBA tries to communicate how members of the English landed gentry, including Elihu Yale, participated in the exploitation central to Britain’s imperial narrative.
The piece’s modern interpretation is contingent on its museum setting; placing it in a different context changes its message. For this reason, as Holloway mentioned in his freshman address, the University removed a similar painting, depicting Elihu Yale with an enslaved servant, from Woodbridge Hall in 2007. “Paintings tend to be used decoratively,” Hargraves said. “When you hang a picture of [Elihu] Yale with an enslaved person or a figure of African descent in servitude, it can show acceptance of [Elihu] Yale or celebration.” While the painting from Woodbridge Hall seemed to endorse Elihu Yale’s use of slavery, the piece in the YCBA serves a very different purpose: to educate.
Neither endorsing nor censoring controversial historical narratives, museums provide spaces to consider these images in educational contexts. “You can have a great work of art that can also be troubling in nature,” Hargraves said. This is where the YCBA comes to the aid of viewers by encouraging them to engage with morally controversial imagery rather than take offense at it. The YCBA recognizes the “enslaved servant” in the shadows of Elihu Yale as a catalyst for analytical conversation. “Pieces can be dialectical in nature,” Hargraves added. “I think we’re well placed to help people to think about these pieces.”