J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Mysteries of Dido Belle’s Portrait

Yesterday’s Guardian contained an article by Stuart Jeffries about the painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray that inspired the new movie Belle.

This painting was once attributed to Johann Zoffany but is now considered to be by an unknown artist, making its interpretation harder. In particular, the article quotes differing theories on why Dido is posed the way she is:
Why does Dido look as if she’s rushing past her cousin on an errand? For [novelist Caitlin] Davies, one possibility is that this started as a single portrait. “It looks like the portrait of Elizabeth came first and then someone wanted the two young women together, so Dido was added. The touch between them can seem awkward – is Elizabeth pushing her away? But perhaps the painter just kept Elizabeth as she was, with one arm held out.” . . .

Mario Valdes, a US historian of the African diaspora, suggests that her turban may be part of an attempt to Indianise Dido. Between 1770 and 1771, he points out, her father served as His Britannic Majesty’s Minister Plenipotentiary in India. What does that have to do with Dido’s gesture? “One interpretation is that she is pointing to the difference in complexion between herself and her cousin,” says Valdes. “But I would argue that a far more sophisticated approach is at play.”

There is a sculpture that shows Krishna in a similar pose, Valdes explains, and a story that he was once slapped by a female deity for taking on the appearance of her sister and her husband. When this sister tried to console him, he smiled, pointed to his bruised cheek, and exclaimed: “She has shown that all three of us are one and the same.” Valdes says: “What Dido’s pose apparently proclaims, therefore, is that she and her cousin share the same humanity and innate worthiness.”
As the article notes, there’s no evidence to suggest the artist or other people connected to the painting knew about that Hindu myth. Dido Elizabeth Belle was not apparently close to her father, with his Indian connection. Furthermore, it was already common for British artists to depict black servants in turbans.

The article mentions how some souvenirs of the painting crop it to show Dido alone. Once her upper body is tilted upright, she appears rather like many other women in period portraits, posed as if seated behind a symbolic platter of fruit. Other paintings show women touching their faces in the same manner.

The dual portrait thus seems to be two rather standard formal portraits of young women, combined in a way to show the social (and ethnic) divide between them yet also depicting their friendship. The artist undoubtedly knew the trope of placing a black servant in the background of a portrait as a generic symbol of wealth, but (was) pushed into unexplored territory of depicting a black individual treated fondly as a member of the family. Hence Lady Elizabeth reaching back to touch Dido’s arm. The result is awkward, but the unknown artist was doing something without precedent.

(The Guardian article misstates the name of Thomas Hutchinson, the former Massachusetts governor quoted here about Dido Belle.)

4 comments:

Mr Punch said...

I wonder if the odd composition could have something to do with (what appears to be) the difference in the two subjects' height. Belle, if portrayed standing straight, would tower over Dido.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, that could be a factor. I've seen a number of portraits of siblings from the 18th century with the family's eldest boy standing and his older, taller sister(s) seated and crouched to one side so as not to overshadow him.

jerry said...

For an interesting Boston connection, I think the piece was painted by Copley. See my article "Zoffany or not Zoffany...That is NOT the Question" at my websitehttp://idiscoveredamerica.com/?p=123

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for that link!