Unknown, European. Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Blossom, mid-18th century. Oil on canvas, 80 × 56.2 cm. © Art Gallery of Ontario, 2019/2437.
For more than six months now, Assistant Curators of European Art Adam Levine and Monique Johnson have been deep in conversation with experts in fields as varied as botany, slavery studies, and costume history, trying to unlock the mysteries hidden within a single painting. Rare for sure, the questions around Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Blossom are multiple – where and when was it made? Who was the woman in the painting? What was her life like and what can we learn about historic Black lives in Europe?
Hot on the case, Levine and Johnson are documenting their ongoing investigation and sharing their conversations with leading experts in a new podcast series, devoted to this new and already beloved painting. Each episode features a new guest, dissecting a distinct element of the painting.
In earlier episodes, we heard from the and leading experts in the history of dress. Most recently, Levine and Johnson were joined by celebrated Canadian expert on art history and slavery for a discussion on race and representation. Commenting on the incredible rarity of such a portrait, Nelson draws attention to the ways in which the black female body is sexualized through western art, and the necessity of understanding the artwork in light of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
In the episode, Dr. Nelson also points to the association of the Black female body, as seen in Portrait of a Lady of Holding an Orange Blossom, with vegetation as a reoccurring motif that can be seen even today in the work of twentieth century Canadian artists Lawren Harris Jr. and Dorothy Stevens. “There are a lot of Canadian 20th century images where [the artists] feel like they have to put a tropical plant next to an unclothed Black woman…. What we see across history is that this is a way of pointing to the Black person’s body as foreign.”
You can hear the full conversation and stay tuned for the next episode, when Levine and Johnson welcome Deborah Metsger, Assistant Curator of Botany at the ROM, to discuss the symbolism of the orange blossom. With new clues coming to light all the time our curators are brimming with excitement.
Eager to investigate for yourself? Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Blossom is currently on view in E.R. Wood Rotunda on Level 1 of the AGO.
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