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A portrait of possibilities

Our newest European Art acquisition is equal parts beauty, mystery and potential

Portrait of a Lady, Three Quarter Length, Holding an Orange Tree Flower

Unknown, European. Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Tree Blossom, mid-18th century. Oil on canvas, Overall: 80 × 56.2 cm. Purchase, 2020.

If you’ve read about the AGO’s recent acquisitions, then you know it’s a top priority of ours to acquire dynamic and captivating works that will both strengthen and diversify our collection. With this in mind, we jumped at the opportunity to purchase the beauty you see pictured above. And what’s even more exciting is that it comes to us with a fascinating mystery to uncover.

Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Blossom is a striking and mysterious portrait that commands your attention. Its central figure is a young woman wearing a luxurious blue silk gown, woven with intricate lace trim. Around her neck and wrists are elegant pearls, which complement her bejewelled drop earrings. She is aware of her own radiance, smizing with piercing brown eyes and regal posture, clasping the front of her gown while presenting an orange tree blossom.

Though the subject’s presence is arresting and undeniable, her identity, as well as that of the artist who painted her, are currently unknown. Scholars agree that Portrait of a Lady is from the mid-1700s, painted by a male artist who was born and trained in Europe. With so many unanswered questions, we are left wondering: Who was this painter? What is the location of this painting and what brought him there? Who was his stunning subject?

Very few portraits of Black people by European artists survive from this time period. The painting raises important questions about the subject’s status within the transatlantic slave trade. While her opulent clothing and the mere existence of the portrait suggest that she was a free woman, her ancestors and even one of her parents may have been enslaved.

We continue to do research to find out more about her story. In the meantime, the presence of this figure in the European galleries reminds us that history is complex and diverse, composed of countless stories told from many perspectives. For the AGO, this acquisition is an important step toward acknowledging the rich and vital presence of people of colour in the history of Europe and its art.

Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Blossom is currently on view on Level 1 in Frank P. Wood Gallery (Gallery 123).

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