Published: August 30, 2022
Jeremy K. Simien is a historian, art collector and consultant who specializes in the art and history of the American South. One of his many recent projects includes the uncovering of an enslaved domestic worker in a family portrait, who had been covered in oil paint and effectively erased from history until just this past year. The painting, “Bélizaire and the Frey Children,” is on view at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, La., until October 2. Simien actively chronicles his research and collecting through his Instagram, @jeremyksimien, an account which has more than 23,000 followers. It was here that we first came across Simien’s work and corresponded with him via email.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with us! Please favor our readers with some information about your background and career.
My name is Jeremy Kyle Simien. I am an art and antiques collector who was born in Baton Rouge, La., in 1985. I am a ninth-generation Louisiana Creole. My European and African ancestors have been in the Louisiana territory for more than 300 years. My Indigenous ancestors have occupied regions of Louisiana and the Southwest for even longer. My interest in the arts began at an early age. My first focus was the musical and recording arts. Before pursuing a career as an advertising consultant, I was a recording engineer with my own recording studio.
When did you begin building and researching your collection?
It was in 2013 when I fell down the rabbit hole. I am aware this is an overly used literary metaphor, but it is really what best describes what happened. The more that I learned about my family’s history in colonial Louisiana, the more questions that I had, and I answered these questions by collecting paintings, pictures, furniture and other objects. I mark the beginning chapter of “serious collecting” when my wife and I purchased a circa 1815 Louisiana-made armoire at Neal Auction Company in New Orleans.
What are your criteria for admitting an object into the collection?
An interesting question. This has changed very recently. I think all collectors come to a point where they have to say ‘no’ to certain acquisitions in an effort to better manage their collection. I am at that point. So, before, if I liked a piece and I felt it told a part of the story of the Creole world, I added it. I’ve become a bit more critical on pieces that I admit in now. These pieces have to first be excellent examples or substantially better than what I currently have or I have to pass. In the past, I was focused on the Creole world and the placement of people of African descent therein. I now find myself interested in pieces that also tell aspects of American history, not just strange little colonies that became states.
Your recent discovery of an enslaved teenage boy named Bélizaire in a portrait of the Frey children is truly extraordinary. How did you come across this project?
I first saw the painting in 2013. I was immediately in awe of the painting. The painting stayed in my mind and in ways, I have been actively looking for it and more information since I first saw it. I had a breakthrough when a friend and antiques dealer, Taylor Thistlewaithe, contacted me via Instagram and told me he had seen the painting in person years back. I was able to contact the dealer, and long story short, locate the painting. I began researching the piece before deciding to hire a research assistant. After this, we were able to discover all of the sitters’ names and the story of Bélizaire emerged.
How has social media been an effective tool for your work?
It has offered unparalleled opportunities to discover, collect and engage. I am pleasantly surprised almost weekly by what I discover from and on social media platforms. I am contacted by a variety of people who enjoy my feed, and I am able to engage and discover new interests and pieces from many of the messages that I receive from Instagram and Facebook. This has been wonderful, especially since Covid continues to limit face to face connections. Also, see my previous answer about how social media helped me find Bélizaire.
Are there any upcoming research projects you would care to share?
Yes, always! I am constantly acquiring new paintings and seem to be in a constant state of research and discovery. I am working on a media project that should bring some exciting content about my work. I am also very excited about a 1720s double portrait of two ladies. One is an aristocrat and the other a woman of color. We haven’t quite figured out who she is, but we are fascinated and hoping with conservation and additional research to learn more.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm