An early 18th-century painting depicting Yale University’s namesake with an enslaved Black child has been returned to public display at one of its museums even as art experts investigate its origins and campus discussions about the school’s ties to slavery continue.
The nearly life-size, oil-on-canvas portrait shows Elihu Yale and family members sitting at a table with tobacco pipes and wine glasses, while an enslaved boy with a metal collar locked around his neck looks on. In the background, children believed to be Yale’s grandchildren are playing.
The Yale Center for British Art removed the painting from display in October 2020 to conduct a technical analysis, which continues and includes efforts to identify the boy, as well as to confirm the identities of the others. Over the years, some patrons expressed concerns about the depiction of an enslaved child, but that was not a reason for removing it, said Courtney Martin, the center’s director.
“There are always going to be concerns about putting a work that has volatile subject matter on view,” Martin said. “But I think you alleviate those concerns by both saying we understand that this is a painting that has a context that we need to explore further.”
So far, the research and analysis by experts at the center have not been able to determine the identity of the boy, whom they believe to have been about 10 years old. But they have determined that some of the adults were misidentified by a previous owner, and that the portrait was painted between 1719 and 1721, the year of Yale’s death, instead of 1708, as originally thought.
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 done at Yale’s home in London. It was returned this month to public display at the museum.
For several months, the painting was replaced by a 2016 work of art by Titus Kaphar that included a portrait of just the enslaved boy, without the metal collar, on top of what appears to be a crumpled version of the original painting.
There is no evidence that Elihu Yale owned slaves. His papers, including financial records, have not been found. And it remains unclear if the enslaved child was owned by one of the other men in the painting, who researchers believe include Yale’s son-in-laws, Lord James Cavendish and Dudley North.
But experts believe Yale oversaw slave trading and other commerce when he was governor of Fort St. George in India and working for the East India Company. And there are other paintings showing Yale with slaves, including one that was removed in 2007 from the meeting room of Yale University’s board of trustees after years of complaints. And his relatives in New Haven, home to Yale University, were slave owners, researchers say.
The college was named for 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 a part of a larger discussion on campus about the university’s ties to slavery, which included associations with people who favored slavery and were racist against Black people. In 2017, the school renamed Calhoun College — named after John C. Calhoun, a 19th-century Yale alumnus, U.S. vice president and slavery supporter — as Grace Hopper College, in honor of the pioneering mathematician and Navy rear admiral who earned Yale degrees in the 1930s.
“Slavery is an important part of the institution’s history,” said Edward Rugemer, an associate professor of African American studies and history at Yale. “And that’s a part of the history that the Yale community needs to think about deeply and come to terms with and move forward in terms of what should be done about racial injustice that persists in our society.”
Rugemer said self-portraits that included slaves were popular during Elihu Yale’s lifetime. Even George Washington had paintings of himself with slaves.
And although there is no proof Yale owned slaves, “he felt it was important to include a slave child in his self-portrait, because including the slave child in the portrait presented him to the public as a man of empire, as a man of wealth, as a master. From Yale’s perspective, the child complements his stature.”