An early 18th-century painting depicting Yale University’s namesake with an enslaved black child has again been on public display in one of its museums, despite art experts investigating its origins and ongoing campus discussions of the school’s links to slavery.
The almost life-size oil-on-canvas portrait shows Elihu Yale and his family members sitting at a table with tobacco pipes and wine glasses while an enslaved boy with a metal collar around his neck looks on. In the background play children who are believed to be Yale’s grandchildren.
The Yale Center for British Art removed the painting from the exhibit in October 2020 for a technical analysis that will continue and will include efforts to identify the boy and confirm the identity of the others. Over the years, some patrons have raised concerns about the portrayal of an enslaved child, but that was no reason to remove it, said Courtney Martin, the center’s director.
“There will always be concerns about presenting a work with volatile topics,” said Martin. “But I think you will allay those concerns by both of you saying that we understand that this is a painting that has a context that we need to explore further.”
So far, research and analysis by experts at the center has not been able to establish the identity of the boy they believe was around 10 years old. However, they discovered that some of the adults were misidentified by a previous owner and that the portrait was painted between 1719 and 1721, the year Yale died, instead of 1708 as originally believed.
It’s also not certain who painted the portrait, although experts at the center believe it was John Verelst, a Dutch artist. Researchers also believe the painting was painted in Yale’s home in London. It was returned for public display at the museum this month.
For several months, the painting was replaced by a 2016 artwork by Titus Kaphar, which featured just a portrait of the enslaved boy without a metal collar over what appeared to be a crumpled version of the original painting.
There is no evidence that Elihu Yale owned slaves. His papers, including financial records, were not found. And it remains unclear whether the enslaved child belonged to any of the other men in the painting who researchers believe may include Yale’s son-in-law, Lord James Cavendish and Dudley North.
However, experts believe that Yale oversaw the slave trade and other trades when he was Governor of Fort St. George in India and worked for the East India Company. And there are other paintings showing Yale with slaves, including one that was removed from the boardroom of the Yale University Board of Trustees in 2007 after years of complaints. And his relatives in New Haven, home of Yale University, were slave owners, researchers say.
The college was named after Yale in 1718 after he donated more than 400 books, profits from the sale of goods, and a portrait of King George I, according to the university.
The painting is part of a larger discussion on campus about the university’s links to slavery, which included associations with people who advocated slavery and were racist against blacks. In 2017 the school was renamed Calhoun College – named after John C. Calhoun, a Yale alumnus from the 19th-1930s.
“Slavery is an important part of the institution‘s history,” said Edward Rugemer, Associate Professor of African American Studies and History at Yale. “And that’s part of the story that the Yale community needs to think deeply about, grapple with and move forward with the persistent racial injustice in our society.”
Rugemer said self-portraits with slaves were popular during Elihu Yale’s lifetime. Even George Washington had pictures of himself with slaves.
And while there is no evidence that Yale owned slaves, “He considered it important to include a slave child in his self-portrait, for the inclusion of the slave child in the portrait presented him to the public as a man of empire, a man of wealth, a master . From Yale’s point of view, the child complements his stature. “