“This is not our story to tell,” says Stephanie Kasten, chair of the World Languages Department at SCH.
In 1837, a wealthy German merchant in New Orleans commissioned a portrait of his three children and a fourth “child,” the family’s 15-year-old enslaved domestic named Bélizaire. While in the hands of the Frey family’s descendants, likely post-Civil War, Bélizaire was completely painted over. The fascinating story of this original painting, and its subsequent handling—both the covering and uncovering of Bélizaire—has been a yearlong focus of Kasten’s French students.
This is the story of a young, enslaved man hidden from view for more than a century. It is a story about Louisiana Creole and American history. And it is a story about understanding more deeply the power of language, history, and resilience through the intensive study of a single painting.
Bélizaire was finally uncovered in the hands of a private collector between 2005-2010. It underwent further restoration in 2022 (the 200th anniversary of Bélizaire’s birth!) to fully reveal the adolescent and his story, and it now hangs in Ogden Museum in New Orleans, LA, where Kasten discovered it last summer.
“There are more questions than answers; yet, there are people interested in getting to the truth, and that’s fascinating to me. That’s incredible,” says Kasten, whose students worked tirelessly using primary and secondary sources to understand the story of Bélizaire this past semester. She became fascinated with the painting during her visit to the Odgen Museum when she was in the city for an American Association of Teachers of French conference. She was so taken with the story that she decided to build an entire unit for her French class around the painting.
The students, in turn, learned about Louisiana Creole history and culture, American history and culture, art history, and French in the U.S.
“This is the evolution of racism,” said student Tony Hicks. “There’s always a story behind what you see; that which is important is invisible to the eye.”
Watch the video below to hear more student takeaways and see the painting in both forms.