RACE MATTERS: Seeing the Black Figure in the European TraditionLondon
Portrait of a Lady with an Orange Blossom, mid 1700s
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
Purchase, with funds from the European Curatorial Committee, 2020 2019/2437
An eighteenth-century painting of an unknown woman of color by an unknown artist is an intriguing puzzle that historians and curators are currently trying to solve. Recently acquired by the Art Gallery of Ontario, this painting presents an unusual image of a Black woman as the sole subject of a work of art. Her fashionability evokes status and style. However, we know that the overwhelming understanding of the lives of black people in Europe in the mid eighteenth century was through the lens of servitude and colonialism. Yet this painting points to the lesser known circumstances of people of African descent who, either born in Europe or traveled there from Africa or the Caribbean, remarkably integrated into the social fabric at different levels. This elegant woman was clearly a lady of means, or perhaps associated with a family of means, making her story all the more fascinating.
From the Renaissance onward women of beauty and station were depicted alongside orange trees in European art. Oranges were powerful symbols of beauty, love, exoticism, and wealth among other ideas.* Similarly, Black servants who often attended the subjects of aristocratic portraits in the seventeenth and eighteenth century symbolized exoticism and were literally the embodiment of the sitter’s wealth. The Portrait of a Lady holding an Orange Blossom poses a layered view of blackness in the eighteenth century. She presents the possibility of freedom, beauty, and wealth in her own right, yet her unusual solo presence in a fashionable portrait throws into relief the ways in which blacks were most often deployed as subservient foils to whites in portraiture of that era. The Portrait of a Lady becomes the exception that proves the rule. Even the case of the known sitter Dido Elizabeth Belle who is portrayed with her cousin in the well-known painting Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and Lady Elizabeth Murray, the elegantly attired Dido wears a turban for exotic effect and carries fruit like a servant, her dark skin providing the requisite contrast of skin tone to illuminate the beauty of the white sitter. In the context of Black women in eighteenth-century European portraiture the Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Blossom is a multifaceted work that signifies the complexities of Black presence in eighteenth-century Europe.
Learn more about the AGO’s attempts to identify this portrait. https://ago.ca/agoinsider/object-mystery
*Christina Mazzoni, Golden Fruit: A Cultural History of Oranges in Italy (Toronto, 2018).