Meet the Art Collector Filling the Gaps in Louisiana History, One Portrait at a Time – Garden & Gun
Art collector Jeremy K. Simien’s Zoom background reads like a Louisiana history-themed game from I Spy. Behind him stands a stately 1890 Steinway piano, with an 1890s top hat perched on it alongside an aquarium of potsherds from New Orleans’ Tremé and French Quarters. To the left hangs a portrait painted by Alberta Kinsey of a black woman wearing a thick white bun. Against the wall is a painting of the sister-in-law of voodoo legend Marie Laveau. From the adjacent living room, Simien’s cat’s tail waves from a blue chair that sat at Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana.
“Around the time I bought a house, I became very interested in my family history,” says Simien. In the decade since he bought his house in Baton Rouge, that interest has led him to acquire antique furniture and objects, from bowls to lamps to candelabras, and more. early to mid-19th century portraits than he can count. Each piece is steeped in Louisiana’s past. Its collection includes a focus on depictions of colored hoop earrings, a term that describes people of mixed European, African, and Native American ancestry, who in the 1830s comprised one-fifth of New Orleans’ population and owned one-third of property in the French Quarter.
“My African ancestors arrived alongside my European ancestors about three hundred years ago, and my native ancestors have been here a bit longer, of course,” Simien explains. “My wife and I became very excited about this story, and we chose pieces that represent different chapters of it.” The acquisition process is rarely straightforward. Simien constantly scours art auction sites and spends countless hours researching every portrait that comes his way. And he’s playing the long game; it took him seven years to track down and acquire a lost painting of his great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, a free man of color born in New Orleans in 1760.
Simien’s immediate goal is to fill in the gaps in Louisiana history for a fuller narrative – to resurrect forgotten or erased histories. “But the bigger story here isn’t just the negative that weighs on us with these difficult race relations,” he says. “It’s actually reassuring that we’re all connected in so many ways. We have art all around us that shows the interaction of various peoples and the merging of Louisiana history.
Here is a sample of Simien’s collection. He shares the backstory of each piece:
“I was visiting a friend near Jeanerette, Louisiana,” Simien says. “His family has been in the sugar business for hundreds of years. And my grandfather used to cut cane in those fields when he was young. I’m sitting there drinking a blackberry mint julep from a silver julep cup. It is a life changing experience. The cup sparkles and I look over there at the candy cane swinging, and I have this thought: My grandfather was in those fields in the 1940s, and I bet this cup was in the cupboard when my grandfather -father was cutting the cane. Naturally, I got mad and started buying silver mugs. And now I got about twenty or thirty silver cups made in New Orleans.
For years no one knew the name of the boy dreaming by the tree in this circa 1837 painting. In fact, for much of the play’s existence, he was not even visible – someone one at one point deemed the grouping unacceptable and painted over it so that only the three white children remained. The painting was stored at the New Orleans Museum of Art from 1972 until 2004, when the museum disposed of it. It was then sold at public auction, and a dealer bought it and cleaned it, revealing the child in the background. Thanks to what Simien calls “polite perseverance” and the help of an Instagram follower, a fellow researcher and Google, he bought the painting in September last year and solved the case of the identity of the boy. His name is Bélizaire and at the time of the painting, he was fifteen years old and was enslaved as a servant. He appears in this portrait with the Frey children, and the family later sold him. “Bélizaire they know your name now,” Simien wrote on Instagram after the discovery was made public. “Tell the ancestors to let me sleep for a minute.”
This miniature, painted on ivory, shows Philippe Aime LeGoaster, a free man of color born in New Orleans in 1820. The Afro-Creole line of his family, in a few generations, passed from slavery to the opening of couture boutiques to become real estate moguls in New Orleans. Along the way, they have helped countless other people of color by providing jobs and apprenticeships within their companies. During Philippe’s lifetime, the LeGoasters left town, choosing to live as equals in France rather than second-class citizens in America. This portrait remained in France until Simien tracked it down through a distant French cousin and brought it back to Louisiana. “When we have people who have fled their homes as refugees because of the circumstances of their time,” he says, “I think it’s wonderfully symbolic when they come back.”
“The velvet moretta mask was one of the oddities of the 18th century,” says Simien, referring to the mask in the hand of the woman on the left. Ladies wore these masks to disguise their identity – and sometimes their race – to avoid social obligations while away. “I love this idea that a woman can go out on the street and see a guy she knows and walk away: No, not today,” laughs Simien. But evading social duties also meant that the woman could not speak; the wearer had to squeeze a bead in their mouth to keep the mask on their face. For now, the identities of these two ladies from the 1720s – and the relationship between them – is a mystery. “I have all kinds of crazy speculations about this weird, weird, weird painting,” Simien says. “It’s one of my next projects.”
To see more of Simien’s collection, visit his Instagram.