Zoe Berg

In late August, a mysterious whiteboard appeared outside Woolsey Hall. On it was a monochrome photograph of a painting: “Elihu Yale, Members of his Family, and an Enslaved Child” by John Verelst, painted in 1719. This now-controversial painting was intermittently displayed in the Yale Center for British Art — first, briefly, in 1981, and then from 2014 to 2020. The photograph outside Woolsey cropped the painting to frame a single figure in the artwork: the enslaved child. In cheap printer monochrome, the child stares hauntingly, only his face and shoulders visible.  

The portrait of Elihu Yale and his family has often been confused with “Elihu Yale and his Servant,” a similar painting that also shows Elihu Yale posing next to an enslaved African boy, which actually belongs to the Yale Undergraduate Art Gallery across the street. Both paintings, after all, have been removed from display and replaced, and both portray the imperialist and racist scene of Elihu Yale next to a slave. Given that its subject matter is not particularly distinctive, and that it depicts a problematic scene, it is difficult to see how the Elihu Yale family portrait could be especially valuable nowadays as a specific art piece. However, tracing the Elihu Yale portrait’s journey through time and space reveals the particular educational mission of a museum, and how a museum can yield fresh information and relevance from art pieces old and new.

“Elihu Yale, Members of his Family, and an Enslaved Child” was originally named “Elihu Yale; William Cavendish, the second Duke of Devonshire; Lord James Cavendish; Mr. Tunstal; and an Enslaved Servant.” In long, buttoned coats, Elihu Yale’s relatives look head-on at the viewers with neutral expressions in the painting. Bedecked in the brightest blue coat, Elihu Yale himself gazes placidly at a point above the head of his tablemate. The only other distinct human figure in the painting is the enslaved African boy with a silver collar around his neck. He is located in the periphery, almost as though Verelst added him as an afterthought, head tilted towards Elihu Yale. Painted as if he is in the dark, he blends into the background next to the other subjects of the painting. Behind him are aristocratic children at play, blurry, yet brighter and easier to see. 

In 1970, the group portrait was gifted from the Devonshire Collections, the store of paintings and paraphernalia owned by the relatives of Lord Devonshire, to the YCBA. However, when the museum opened to the public in 1977, the painting was not displayed because the director and curators deemed it to be “of inferior quality” compared to other works in the collection, according to the Elihu Yale Portrait Research Team (which consists of members Eric James, Abigail Lamphier, Lori Misura, David K. Thompson, and Edward Town). 

In 1980, former Head of Berkeley College Robin William Winks requested the painting to be hung in the Berkeley dining hall. There, the portrait was displayed for 17 years, with a brief break in 1981 when the painting was temporarily placed in the YCBA as part of “The Conversation Piece: Arthur Devis and His Contemporaries” exhibition. In 2014, the Elihu Yale portrait was displayed as the opening painting in another YCBA exhibition called “Figures of Empire: Slavery and Portraiture,” and it remained in the museum until fall 2020. 

Then, it was replaced with Titus Kaphar’s “Enough About You.” In “Enough About You,” the enslaved child is centered, his expression defiant, his neck without a collar. The other figures, including Elihu Yale and his relatives, are not visible at all; the rest of the canvas is crumpled. 

Currently, the Elihu Yale portrait is in temporary storage — and “Enough About You” has, since May 2021, moved back to the custody of the Collection of Arthur Lewis and Hau Nguyen. The Elihu Yale Portrait Research Team wrote in a collective email that no other replacements have been found, or requested, because “the wall where these works previously hung is now intentionally void of art — only the two object labels and a text panel describing [the research project on the Elihu Yale portrait] remain.” 

Since October, the Elihu Yale portrait has been housed in the YCBA painting conservation studio for study and analysis, including infrared spectroscopy and a historical investigation into its painter’s capabilities and former career as part of an official research project planned when Courtney Martin took on the director role for the YCBA in 2019.

Why was the portrait replaced in the first place? It wasn’t purely for political reasons, and it wasn’t purely for research purposes, either, according to Martin.

“The current research project commenced immediately following George Perry Floyd Jr.’s murder on May 25, 2020,” she said.“The aim of this project is to make transparent the history of the painting and the multiple ways in which its complex past has been explored.”

For all the attention it has received, the painting is unnoticed outside of its association with Yale, said Adam Chen, head guide of the YCBA’s Student Guide Program. He cites the painting’s link to Yale as a major factor behind the YCBA’s decision to display it, although he clarifies that historical worth was also a factor. Even so, visitors looked down on the painting for being “not technically skilled, ugly, ghastly.” The Elihu Yale Portrait Research Team described how one reviewer decried the painting as “a gross and nightmarish portrait of Elihu Yale, the Duke of Devonshire and friends.” 

As a YCBA student guide from 2017 to 2020, Sohum Pal created and delivered a tour for museum visitors. His tour theme was “Spectacles of Race and Empire,” and focused on depictions of racialized people. He did not include the Elihu Yale portrait in his tour. 

 Pal is critical of the portrait’s replacement for Titus Kaphar’s painting. “To what extent is Yale trying to provide itself ideological cover?” he said. “Power concedes nothing without a demand. We will have no civil rights movement until there is a convergence of interests between oppressed and oppressors. The question I would see with the Titus Kaphar replacement — where is the convergence?” 

The painting was discussed in a few of the art history classes Pal took, however. “We mostly talked about the colors, the boy, the way that power is directed by the gaze, and by the organization of the painting — boy to the side,” he said. He does not think that the boy is present in the painting because of “some great gesture of humanism,” he said. He believes the painting uses the boy as a “symbol of power,” and noted that Elihu Yale, as a former governor of India, was complicit in slavery and colonialism. “He is using a slave to represent racialized dominion over lesser nations, darker nations.” Following the 2020 BLM protests, Pal gained a “better understanding of what this painting was meant to do: it’s a reminder of, and testament to, racialized power.” 

The Elihu Yale Portrait Research Team concurred: “The depiction of a child of African heritage wearing a metal collar around his neck was and is disturbing; that has not changed.” However, they noted that “the accurate identification of more of the sitters in the painting has changed our opinion about when, where and why the painting was made, and gives us a better chance of recovering the personhood of the child in the painting.” Through comparisons with other paintings, the children in the background have been identified as Elihu Yale’s grandchildren, and the seated man in a blue coat previously thought to be William Cavendish is now agreed to be Dudley North, Elihu Yale’s son-in-law. Through observing their ages as represented in the painting, and keeping in mind the painting’s own age (previously thought to have been painted in 1708, but the presence of the Prussian Blue pigment indicates it was painted between 1719 and 1721, the year of Elihu Yale’s death), the enslaved child’s date of birth has been estimated to be 1712.

Given the painting’s racial stigma and lack of technical artistry, many believe the painting should not be on display, said Chen. But he believes that “only by having images like this on display are we able to confront uncomfortable histories of the university and British art in general.” Members of the YCBA staff generally concur. The Elihu Yale Portrait Research Team pointed out that “the prominence of the padlock around this collar and the young age of the child make this painting difficult to encounter, yet it is only one of the many sources, documents, and paintings — in our collection and in others — that bear witness to this distressing and often overlooked aspect of Britain’s history.” 

The dilemma that now surrounds the Elihu Yale portrait is a familiar one on campus and across the United States, concerning Confederate paraphernalia, and especially statues. Only a few years ago, Grace Hopper was known as Calhoun College (John C. Calhoun was not involved with the Confederacy, but was vehemently pro-slavery and was subsequently honored by the Confederacy). Proponents of keeping Confederate statues standing assert that they are integral to teaching history and emphasize the sculptures’ artistic merit. Meanwhile, critics state that keeping the statues makes the statement that racist figures, and their racism, are still worthy of our respect and adulation. They argue that museums should do a better job of teaching history, without needless and dangerous glorification of national sins.

Chen raised an interesting question about the costs of “censoring” history in an art museum: “Should we talk about the history of slavery only with the Eli Yale portrait, or when it’s seemingly intentionally left out by the artist?” He mentioned William Hogarth’s “Portrait of a Family,” a painting in the YCBA, which depicts a family and their slave. At some point, the painting was cut into two, so that now the only evidence that a slave was ever depicted manifests in two dark hands holding a serving platter. “At one point it showed the history of slavery. Then it was cut out,” Chen said. 

The general consensus among the YCBA staff is that museums do not best serve their educational purpose by either “beautifying” ugly parts of history (calling the enslaved child a “servant”), or by pretending that past atrocities simply never happened. By purposefully displaying a variety of objects to avoid advancing any one ideology, museums can conscientiously respond to the complexities of racial history in something so full of colonialism and imperialism as a collection of British art. For example, Chen said the YCBA includes both a bust honoring former British Prime Minister William Pitt and a series of political cartoons that mock him.

Martin hopes to have “Enough About You” return to the YCBA at some point. Perhaps the two works will hang alongside one another to “continue the conversation,” she said.

“By collapsing and reworking the composition of the historic portrait — literally reframing the picture — Kaphar’s work was most instructive and inspirational in its ability to refocus our attention on concerns surrounding representations of slavery and Black bodies,” she said. 

As propaganda demonstrates, art has a keen ability to affect the ideals and unconscious biases of a people, especially when associated with a famous figure. It is important that when harmful or hateful art is recognized as such, it is not presented as equally benign as artworks without hateful ideologies attached. Still, whitewashing the past by erasing discussions about historical atrocities is counterproductive. Museums play a large role in public education by presenting the past in its proper context. In the past, Elihu Yale was considered the most important figure in his portrait, his family members second and the enslaved child merely an afterthought. In fact, the first 1981 catalog entry for the Elihu Yale portrait did not mention the enslaved boy at all. Now, priorities, both political and artistic, have shifted. 

On Sept. 12 and 13, several mini-portraits of the enslaved child, printed scans like the Woolsey photograph but in color this time, manifested on Old Campus bulletin boards. As of the time of this writing, such portraits can be also seen on utility poles near campus. They are accompanied by a QR code and the hashtag #RECLAIMTHECHILD. Scanning the code brings up the #ReclaimTheChild website, hosted by Making A Village Radio, which calls upon 100 artists to “reclaim the child in the 21st century” by painting him. The resulting paintings from this project are intended to be displayed to the public and sold at auction to raise funds for underserved communities. Instead of the figure of Elihu Yale, the humanity and dignity of the unnamed, anonymous enslaved child captures attention and inspires action now.