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What A Depiction

Racism is taught in our society… it is not automatic. It is learned behaviour toward persons with dissimilar physical characteristics.” – Alexander (Alex) Murray Palmer Haley (August 11, 1921 – February 10, 1992)

With more than just a casual glance at the painting: a young Black boy, serving adult White guests, may be encountered.

British-American colonial administrator Elihu Yale (April 5, 1649 – July 8, 1721), with his family members, form the central theme of this work of art. Four White men, clad in rich 18th Century attire, can also be seen standing around the table, where the young slave is serving them all. The painting, titled ‘Elihu Yale With Members of His Family and an Enslaved Child’, was the creation of John Verelst, a Dutch portraitist working in Britain, probably around 1719. He had painted this portrait at Yale’s residence in London.

There, it is seen that when Yale and guests relished their smoke and drinks, his grandchildren happily played in a field near that residence. That can be seen by looking keenly at the right side of the canvas. The young slave did not have the opportunity to enjoy his childhood, as the child of African descent is seen pouring wine for the host and his guests in the painting. Although the Black child is dressed in gray, there is a silver lock-collar painted around his neck. In other words, he is in chains, with the collar apparently used to prevent him from escaping.

The child slave

Yale is best remembered as the primary benefactor of Yale College (now Yale University), which was named in his honour. Born in Boston (Massachusetts), he spent most of his life in England, Wales and India. Yale had served as President of the British East India Company settlement in Fort St George, Madras (now Chennai) in southern India. As per Wikipedia, he was a Philanthropist. It is a fact that he had donated books, portraits and textiles to Yale College under the request of Rev. Cotton Mather, a Harvard graduate. At the same time, one should not forget that main sources of his earnings were the slave trade, child labour and forced labour. Meanwhile, no one knows the identity of the child slave seen in the painting.

Researchers have made an attempt to identify the child. Many of them are of the opinion that the European artists did not paint African or Native American figures from real-life models; instead, they used to paint speculative figures on the basis of stereotype portraits. This grotesque painting leaves vivid people astounded in the 21st Century. It seems that only human beings can show such a lack of humane qualities. There is no reason to think that only a single painting of this kind has been found. There are many other similar paintings of slave children in US universities and museums.

Meanwhile, unanswered questions about the enslaved child haunted New Haven resident Titus Kaphar in 2016, when he first saw the portrait. Inspired by Verelst’s original work, he painted ‘Enough About You‘, in which he recreated the 18th Century piece of art beyond recognition, and framed the boy’s portrait in gold. Kaphar also crumpled the four White men into shattered obscurity, and gave the boy a defiant personality. In 2019, the artist told Terence Trouillot of Artnet News: “I decided to physically take action to quiet (and crumple) the side of the painting that we’ve been talking about for a very long time and turn up the volume on this kid’s story.

Four continents are associated with Verelst’s work. A colonial ruler in India, who used to live in London, had purchased slaves from Africa and sold them to the US. Later, he donated some of the proceeds to the US university in order to earn the title of Philanthropist.

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