Tigerlily Hopson

In a small bay, tucked on the fourth floor of the Yale Center for British Art, a wall-sized group portrait of Elihu Yale and an enslaved child hangs. The child, shrouded in shadow, is confined by an undivestable metal padlocked collar. Visitors wander in and out under the painting’s presence. Some walk past without blinking an eye, others stand and stare. Some look right at the child, others scan and never linger. The room fills with anger, satisfaction, indifference. The child looks onward, trapped and frozen in centuries-old pigment. 

In late October, the Yale Center for British Art redisplayed the controversial 18th century group portrait “Elihu Yale with Members of His Family and an Enslaved Child” with a revised name and new wall text, following a year-long investigation into the painting and the child’s identity. Yale and the extended community have now spent nearly a month grappling with the impact of the University’s namesake juxtaposed with a shackled child.  

The News spoke to 30 students, professors, New Haven residents, museum visitors and security guards. Overwhelmingly, community members felt the portrait should be on display in order to confront the University’s ties to slavery, but many expressed that displaying the painting, even with the new wall text, was not enough. People yearned for stronger context surrounding the group portrait, a University response and for the child to be “set free.” 

“When you read the text it is really poignant, but you can walk by the painting … and just see grandeur or just see legacy, and not see enslavement,” Bhasha Chakrabarti ART ’22 said. 

When Chakrabarti first saw the group portrait in 2019, she started weeping from anger, frustration and confusion as the visitors around her circulated. She has visited the current display about five times and is still struck by those who do not pause to recognize the significance of the child. She said she has seen visitors taking group photos in front of the painting with their families. 

Chakrabarti said she liked when the group portrait was down for a few months in 2021, and in its place was a blank wall with text about the painting and the enslaved child. She believed this was a powerful way to acknowledge the portrait and its history while not perpetrating its violence. 

“It’s a painting that has caused distress, and it wouldn’t be put on display unless [we] felt that it was important for us to have this conversation — because if the painting is in storage, this conversation doesn’t happen,” Edward Town, assistant curator of paintings and sculpture at the YCBA and a member of the Elihu Yale Portrait Research Team, told the News.  

The group portrait was the museum’s first formal acquisition, gifted to the YCBA in 1970 by the eleventh Duke of Devonshire, and championed by Jules Prown, the founding director. The portrait made a brief appearance in 1981, was part of an exhibit on slavery and portraiture in 2014, and then was displayed again in 2016.

The Elihu Yale Portrait Research Team was formed by YCBA director Courtney Martin after the summer of 2020 in the wake of protests surrounding the police murder of George Floyd. One of the group’s driving aims was to find the identity of the enslaved child, but so far they have been unsuccessful in that pursuit. The child, according to the Research Team, appears to be 10 years old and most likely served as an enslaved child attendant. Even though chattel slavery was ostensibly unlawful during the time of the painting, it was a common practice for enslaved children under the age of 10 to be brought to Britain to serve families of the upper class. 

(Tigerlily Hopson, Contributing Photographer)

“The first thing I noticed was the kid in the back because for very obvious reasons that was the person I felt like I had the most in common with,” said Juma Sei ’22, who visited the portrait in 2019. “We spend so much time learning about who [Elihu] Yale was, but in one of the most prominent portraits of him that the University espouses, there is this unnamed black child.” 

The wall text at the start of the exhibit titled “New Light on the Group Portrait of Elihu Yale, His Family, and an Enslaved Child,” touches on the Research Team’s discoveries, their continued research and details that Elihu Yale made his fortune from the profits of colonialism and the slave trade. He privately traded diamonds and precious stones, and was an East India Company representative, overseeing the shipment of enslaved people across the Indian Ocean. The extent of Yale’s involvement in slavery has not been ascertained because of a lack of accessible records. 

Some visitors felt satisfied with the context given in the display, and were grateful that the truth of Elihu Yale’s connection to the slave trade was highlighted. Visitors also noted their appreciation for the title, and specifically how it calls attention to the enslaved child.

Carla Jackson, who visited the portrait and is the audience services manager at the Schwarzman Center, was excited by the wall text. Reading the text, she thought of a phrase used in the Black community: “Tell the story, and tell it plain.” According to Jackson, the wall text is doing exactly that —  “telling the story.” At the very least, it is a start to addressing this history and the identity of the enslaved child, she said.

The majority of the people interviewed believed the painting should be displayed. Some visitors felt that not displaying the painting would be a denial of Yale’s history.

“You can’t stick your head in the ground like an ostridge,” said Debbie Jaccarino, who lives in Bethel, Connecticut and visited the museum with her family. “If you get rid of it, it’s like it never happened.”

Other visitors were unimpressed with the wall text, and observed a lack of creativity in the display. Some wished for a more interactive aspect, such as a wall for people to leave comments on. Those believed that it was important for the piece to be on display, but only if it was better contextualized. Several people felt the language of the wall text skated around the key issues of the portrait.

John Walker ’00, who visited the museum to see the display with his wife and two young daughters, was disappointed by the lack of context and felt the wall text was “not nearly enough.” He, like several others, also wished the painting was more prominently displayed. 

“This was handled with kid gloves,” Walker said. “No, less than kid gloves.”  

Visitors and students expressed frustration with how the museum display was physically set up. Some felt the child was not sufficiently centered. Currently, “Elihu Yale with Members of His Family and an Enslaved Child” is hung between a portrait of Yale and his nephew, a portrait of a woman previously thought to be Yale’s daughter and a portrait of a woman painted by the uncle of the group portrait’s supposed artist. At the front of the bay, a smaller version of the group portrait painted on copper can be seen. 

When the group portrait was originally taken down in 2020, a piece by New Haven-based Black artist Titus Kaphar titled “Enough About You” was installed in its place. In Kaphar’s painting, a physical frame surrounds the enslaved child’s face — eyes daring, body set free — and the figures behind him are crumpled up. The collar, which according to Town would have been made by the same people who made dog collars and was used to prevent enslaved people from running away, is removed. 

At the group portrait’s display, resident of Orange, CT and museum visitor Bill Christmas excitedly showed Jackson, who he was accompanying, Kaphar’s portrait on his phone. 

“You have to see this,” he said. As soon as Jackson saw the photo, she shrieked out with joy. 

“Look at the defiance, and the chain is gone!” she exclaimed. 

Kaphar’s piece was recently returned to its owners — Arthur Lewis and Hau Nguyen — but person after person mentioned Kaphar’s portrait and expressed how they wished it was in the YCBA space, either alongside or in place of the painting. Many wished for the child to be represented outside of the bondage he suffers in the group portrait.

“Primary sources need to be put in context with secondary sources,” Walker said, explaining that modern artwork can serve to make the meaning of historical art more clear. 

Three visitors described the portrait as “beautiful,” one described the child as “happy,” and several others considered it simply a product of its time. 

Out of the seven portraits of Elihu Yale — all of which are held by Yale University — three feature Elihu Yale and an enslaved person: the large and small versions of “Elihu Yale with Members of His Family and an Enslaved Child” and a portrait that hung in the Yale Corporation Room from 1910 to 2007. This portrait titled “Elihu Yale with his Servant” featured Elihu Yale next to an enslaved person in a similar collar. The News first reported on the portrait in 1995, publishing a front page story accompanied by a photo of the painting. The portrait belongs to the Yale University Art Gallery. 

Chakrabarti argued that this portrait should be put on display next to the group portrait in order to show that Elihu Yale’s desire to be presented alongside enslaved people is not an “anomaly.” 

“I do think the other painting should be studied as well,” Town said about the necessity of an investigation into the enslaved person in “Elihu Yale with his Servant.” 

Earlier this year, an organization founded in 2015 called Making A Village began an initiative titled #ReclaimTheChild. Posters of the enslaved child, put up by the organizers, can be seen on campus billboards and New Haven lampposts. On the posters is a QR code that guides the viewer to a website calling for artists to “reclaim the child” by creating art in a way that gives the child his own identity.

Two of the project’s leaders, Jadie Meprivert and Eric Gray, said that the responses have been “overwhelming.” They have recieved photos, sculptures, paintings and films. Meprivert and Gray said they support the museum’s efforts in finding the name and identity of the child. They are also aiming to engage in discussions with the YCBA with the hope that a sculpture of the enslaved child, which was sculpted by one of the artists participating in the project, can be put on display. 

Meprivert described that for the New Haven residents she has spoken to, it can be “traumatizing” to see the face of the child in the collar on display — a child who could be anyone, or anyone’s. According to Meprivert, residents and community members are using #ReclaimTheChild project to finally give the child personhood. 

“[Artists are] giving him a voice, a future, a hopeful vision outside of the shackles, outside of that bondage — truly reimagining, reclaiming that child,” Meprivert said. 

The Elihu Yale Portrait Research Team said they welcome community members’ and visitor’s thoughts and ideas on the group portrait, which can be shared via an online survey

TIGERLILY HOPSON