Based on the painting’s signature, which reads “J. Schul...fec” we have now identified the artist as Jeremias Schultz. Schultz was born in 1722 or 23, perhaps in Berlin, and he built a successful career as a painter in Amsterdam, where he died in 1800. Schultz painted portraits of residents of Amsterdam and the nearby city of Deventer, leading us to believe that the subject of our painting lived in the capital city of a vast global network of trade and exchange.

While we still do not know the name of the painting’s subject, we are learning more through our collaborative research. Stay tuned for more updates on our ongoing project.

Very few portraits of people of colour by European artists survive from this period. In our collection, Black subjects appear in several paintings, where they are cast in positions of servitude and enslavement. Four examples appear below.

Below, you can listen to interviews we conducted with different experts who all brought their knowledge to bear on our understanding of the painting. The interviews were conducted over the course of a year, while our research was ongoing, so in each episode you’ll hear us learn more and more.


Introduction to the series

Curators Adam Levine and Monique Johnson discuss their process and the different questions they hope to answer as they peel back the layers of Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Blossom. In the following audio episodes, they share with you the first of these conversations with experts.

Transcripts for Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Blossom - Intro

Text transcript for this video

Introduction to the series

Adam Levine  0:03  
Hi, everyone. I'm Adam Levine, assistant curator of European art at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Monique Johnson  0:09  
And I'm Monique Johnson, interim assistant curator of European art, and we hope you're all keeping well.

Adam Levine  0:16  
We're at home working on a research project on our newest acquisition, Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Nlossom. When we purchased the painting in January 2020, we knew that the painting was important, beautiful and that it belonged in our collection. It also raises intriguing questions.

Monique Johnson  0:33  
While we don't yet know who painted the work, who the subject is, where she's standing, or what circumstances led to the making of the portrait, we can work with the painting and with experts all around the world to explore these questions.

Adam Levine  0:48  
Over the next several weeks, we're going to let you behind the scenes to learn more about what we do as curators, the questions were asking, and the experts were talking to to help unpack some of this painting's mysteries.

Monique Johnson  1:00  
The portrait is incredible. The artist has painted an elegant young woman wearing a luxurious blue silk gown decorated with intricate and beautifully rendered lace. The figure presents herself with confidence and grace as she holds our gaze. She stands outdoors, holding an orange blossom in one hand and the apron of her skirt and the other.

Adam Levine  1:25  
She's positioned standing next to a potted orange tree and behind her is an architectural element, a clearing and what looks like an obelisk or a fountain. The sky above is dark and cloudy with passages of intense blue peeking through. Based on the technique and style of the work, it's clearly the work of an artist trained in Europe. In the history of European art from the 1700s there are so few single portraits of women of colour.

Monique Johnson  1:51  
In episodes to come, we will look at the painting's condition and materials. We'll look at the subject's dress and jewelry and the landscape. And we'll work together with experts on gender, race and global history to tell you more. We hope you'll enjoy the journey.

A Portrait of Possibilities - The Painting as a Physical Object

The Painting as Object

As art historians, we begin with the object itself. Our first conversation is with Maria Sullivan, Head of Conservation here at the AGO, to ask her about what evidence we can find in the physical painting itself. How can paint, canvas, and wood stretchers help us understand not only more about the painting’s creation, but also the life the painting has lived since? We ask Maria about the painter’s signature, why it is currently so hard to read, and what we can do in the future to learn more about this critical site on the canvas.

We look forward to future discoveries through conservation analyses!

Transcripts for Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Blossom - The Painting as Object

Text transcript for this audio track

The Painting as Object

Monique: Hello all and welcome to another episode of “A Portrait of Possibilities”, where curators at the Art Gallery of Ontario interview experts to learn more about our recent acquisition, Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Blossom. Throughout the series, we'll talk to specialists on topics as diverse as race, gender, botany, fashion and art conservation. To better understand the world that produced our enigmatic portrait of a woman of color, standing outside in lavish dress, offering the viewer more questions than answers.

Adam: I'm Adam Levine, assistant curator of European art.

Monique: And I'm Monique Johnson, Interim assistant curator of European art.

Adam: Today I'm talking to Maria Sullivan, the AGO’ss head of conservation to ask her about the painting as a physical object and the different materials the artists use to make it. Maria is an expert paintings conservator and has been at the AGO for many years. Before we closed for social distancing, Maria had a really slim window of time to look at the painting and examine it before we put it on the wall. So I'm not going to ask her any hyper-specific questions today or hold her accountable. And we're going to keep the conversation pretty general, because when we get back, Maria will have a much greater opportunity to look at the painting and study it. And so just for a totally general question to start, Maria, what are the first things you look for when you're examining a painting?

Maria: Well, as a conservator, when I first examine a painting, I look at it as a physical object. So how has it been constructed? What materials have been used and how have they been used? I also look for signs of change. How have the materials changed? Have they yellowed or just colors? Are there signs of restoration: is there you know, overpainting or repainting? Is there any obvious damage? So, looking for clues that the physical object can give us.

Adam: With our painting, what are the sorts of materials that were used to put the painting together?

Maria: So ours is an oil on canvas, so it's it's a canvas that's been stretched onto a wood stretcher and painted with oil paints that would have been built up from a an initial ground layer on the canvas. And then the artists would have used several layers of paint to build up the image.

Adam: Can you tell us about the sorts of pigments that a painter might have used in the 18th century?

Maria: Yes, Prussian Blue is a common blue that was used in the 18th century. It's something that was first made at the beginning of the 18th century and then it became very popular. Other blues in use at that time include azurite and ultramarine. Ultramarine was very expensive at the time, so it wasn't very frequently used. Other colors that were that were used might have been like a vermilion which is a red color; verdigris, which is a green, a copper-based green. Earth pigments such as ochre and umbers and charcoal or ivory black.

Adam: What's ivory black? I think of ivory as white!

Maria: Yes, so it actually is a black pigment that was made by burning ivory. That's really difficult to think of these days. But most black pigments at that time were made by burning different materials. So ivory black was actually made by burning ivory. And it was the carbon based material that was what was left. Lamp black is another black that was commonly used and that would have been different materials, but again, sort of a combustion and remaining carbon materials.

Adam: I’m looking at the Lady Holding an Orange Blossom and this very distinctive blue dress that she's wearing. Do you think that that could be Prussian Blue? Is that the sort of hues of blue that you associate with Prussian Blue?

Maria: Yes, not directly but it's possible. I think that's my best guess about what it could be. Azurite is another pigment--it's a copper based pigment that was in use at the time as well. But Prussian Blue was so popular in the 18th century that it's, it's a good, it's a good possibility. I think it's very unlikely to be ultramarine. So, so it could be Prussian Blue. And sometimes they're mixed, the blues are mixed with other pigments to create a slightly different blue color. So that can affect the end result of the blue and sometimes some of those pigments in the mixture can change over time or the yellow of the oil binder. It can yellow a bit and change the appearance.

Adam: And then after a painting is made, it gets a layer of varnish, right?

Maria: Yes, yes, generally.

Adam: And does it look like our painting has had a layer of varnish applied?

Maria: Yes, so a traditional painting like this would have been varnished probably by the artist sometime after painting. Varnish is typically yellow,  and natural resin varnishes will start to yellow after about 30 years. So you can imagine over a period of time that the varnishes would become very yellow. So that's something when we talk about cleaning paintings, removing varnish, that's something that is often done to remove this yellow layer and replace it with a clear new varnish, so that you get a truer sense of the colors. And certainly in this painting, we can tell that it's probably has been varnished and re-varnished a number of times over the years.

Adam: What else have you observed just from your sort of slim window of time looking at the painting, that, you know, what have you seen looking at the painting?

Maria: Well, again, as you mentioned, it was a very brief period of time that we had to look at the painting… so I haven't, unfortunately, spent much time with it. But you know, it's clear that the painting has been restored a number of times, we can tell by looking at it. That some of the important passages of the painting are in good condition, like parts of the face and some of the jewelry and the pearls. We know that the painting was lined: that is that it was painted on canvas and sometimes those canvases become weak or they're damaged over time. And so a common restoration technique is to glue a second canvas to the back of the original canvas to support it. So that happened at some time at some point in the past. You know, we can tell looking at those that I mentioned, some of those details are very finely done. And we were talking about pigments earlier: I suspect that a lead white pigment was probably used in those pearls and some of those lace details on the dress. Lead white is was also very commonly used at that time. And it's a very durable pigment, which would explain how those delicate paint strokes would have held up so well over time.

Adam: It feels really of lucky, right, that history is worked out this way, because that's I think some of the finest passages in the painting are made from one of the most durable pigments available to the painter. And you mentioned that it looks like, you know, that there are signs of many different restoration campaigns. And what do you think that means about the kind of life that this painting has lived?

Maria: Right! We know that it's been well taken care of, you know, restoration isn't something that is, it costs money to do that, and, and people would generally only do that if they were looking out for an artwork. So, I think it really indicates that this painting was very important to its owners, and that in the past, it was very well cared for.

Adam: Another thing that really stands out to me, that sort of speaks to the historic importance of this painting, is the number at the top left of the painting. Have you had a chance to look, is that painted on? Or what is that tiny little passage at the top left of the painting?

Maria: Yeah. It’s really interesting. And that's pretty unusual as well, it isn't painted on, it seems to be a paper label that was at some point affixed to the surface of the painting. And then it's been varnished over. So we know that it's been there for, for quite a while. We don't know quite when it was put on. But I think it'll be interesting to have a closer look at that and try to figure out the layering and get what information we can from that.

Adam: And so it's the number 52. And in ink, I think on paper, and it's so interesting to me, because that means that this painting had at least 51 compatriots in a historic collection at some time, right, it was hung in a house  with at least 51 other paintings… You know, at one point in history, someone made an inventory of all of the works of art in their collection. And, and that also sort of speaks to the place of pride that this painting had, that this was important enough to sort of count in this inventory process and that in a moment history it was assigned value and that it really was significant to the owner.

Maria: Yeah, absolutely. That's a great point. And I think the sort of history of the painting in terms of materials that what we talked about before,  how it's obviously been restored a number of times, speaks to the care that someone has shown it over the years.

Adam: When you looked at the painting, were you able to see if there was an artist signature or any sort of indication of the artist’s identity?

Maria: So we knew before it came in that there was a signature somewhere at the bottom left of the painting. It turns out to be incredibly difficult to see under normal circumstances, we haven't had yet had a chance to bring the painting to our conservation center to have a closer look. But with a very strong flashlight, looking very closely, you can just see a hint of a signature. As I mentioned, it's very difficult to see so I'm hoping with some imaging techniques that we'll be able to have a get a better sense of what it actually says.

Adam: What happened? Did the paint of the signature fade? Or, why is it so difficult to see now?

Maria: It's a little bit hard to say, again, because we haven't looked at it very closely. But it looks to me like there's a varnish over the signature. And that has leached. And what I mean by that is sometimes a varnish can get this fine cracking and in turn a slightly whitish color. And that is obscuring the signature to some to some degree. So, it actually has this layer over top of the signature that's hiding it in a way.

Adam: So as soon as we get back, you know, we're so excited to get back to work on this painting. What are some things that you imagine you might do to study the painting once you have it up in your lab?

Maria: Right, we'd love to have a closer look at it up in the lab. Having a closer look with a microscope can give us an awful lot of information about the painting. So that would be one of the first things we do. We also have the ability to do quite a lot of technical imaging. So we would look at under different types of light and capture that with photography. We would use ultraviolet light to look at the surface of the painting; that can give us a lot of information about the varnish, about more recent overpayment or retouches restorations that have happened. We will also use infrared light, which is a longer wavelength of light. And a lot of artists’ pigments are actually transparent to infrared, which means that we can almost in a way look through the paint layer to see if there might be an underdrawing underneath, but it can also give us different information about the materials used in the painting. We also have the ability to do X rays in conservation. So that's something that might give us more information, you know, and then we could collaborate with others like the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa, to analyze the pigments and materials and figure out exactly what the chemical composition of the blue is so we could confirm whether it's Prussian Blue or some other type of blue.

Adam: Maria, one question that I have is, thinking about the canvas and the stretcher and the pigments and the oil, all of the materials that go into making the painting, do you think that any of them can give us a clue as to whether the painter is working in in Europe or in the Caribbean? Or in Asia? You know, can we sort of look closely at these materials and try to come to some new understanding about the location of the painting?

Maria: So it's a really interesting question, I think there are some materials that might help us there, we could potentially look at the structure for the type of wood at this point, we don't actually know if the structure is original to the painting or not. So we'd have to look more closely at that. We could look at the canvas, the lining canvas and the original canvas, it's still quite possible that a lot of the materials the artist was using came from Europe or somewhere else. So that might not help but there's a potential for something there that might help us. But it's hard to say at this point.

Adam: That's exciting. I feel like there is even just going through the process and confirming that all of the materials, you know that the canvas is woven in Europe with the stretchers are European pine or whatever it is, it's still going to be, I think, part of our ongoing process of trying to narrow down possibilities and come to more certain conclusions about the painting.

Maria: Right. I think you never know when you're looking at something like this. You never know what you might find. And it can be just a small thing, hidden somewhere in one of the layers that can open it all up and reveal lots of information to you. So, the possibilities are really exciting.

Adam: It sounds like there is so much that we stand to learn as soon as we get back into the building and get back to work. I'm really, really excited to keep working on this project with you. Thank you so much Maria. This has been really, really insightful.

Maria: Yeah, my pleasure. It's a really exciting project. And a lovely painting.

Thank you for joining us today.

Please join us next time when we'll look closely at the costume worn by the lady in our portrait as we speak to Dr. Ingrid Mida, The Dress Detective and Dr. Alexandra Palmer, the Nora E. Vaughan Senior Curator, Global Fashion & Textiles, at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Transcribed by


The Dress

One critical object in our research is the sitter’s blue dress: this can help us understand when the painting was made and even offer insight into the life of the painting’s sitter. We interview two local experts on the history of dress: Ingrid Mida, PhD, author of The Dress Detective and Reading Fashion in Art and Alexandra Palmer, PhD, Nora E. Vaughan Senior Curator, Global Fashion & Textiles, at the Royal Ontario Museum. They tell us that the style of the dress corresponds to fashions worn in the 1770s. An analysis of the bodice of the dress indicates that the woman in the portrait may be younger than we first thought. We discuss what the dress and jewelry might reveal about the subject’s status and learn about the manufacture of and global trade in textiles in the eighteenth century. Where in the world were such items made, available, and worn?

Since this interview, Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Blossom has also been featured on the Fashion History Timeline with an extended entry written by fashion scholar Kenna Libes. Libes' analysis and proposed date corresponds to the date range suggested by Dr. Mida and Dr. Palmer. The essay can be consulted here:

Transcripts for Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Blossom - The Dress

Text transcript for this audio track

The Dress

Adam Levine  0:00 
Hello all and welcome to another episode of a portrait of possibilities, where curators at the Art Gallery of Ontario interview experts to learn more about our recent acquisition, Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Blossom.

Monique Johnson  0:12 
Throughout the series, we'll talk to specialists on topics as diverse as race, gender, botany, fashion and art conservation. To better understand the world that produced our enigmatic portrait of a woman of color, standing outside in lavish dress, offering the viewer more questions than answers.

Adam Levine  0:31 
I'm Adam Levine, assistant curator of European art.

Monique Johnson  0:35 
And I'm Monique Johnson, interim assistant curator of European art. Today we'll be looking more closely at the incredible costume and dress worn by the lady in this portrait. We'll be joined by two scholars of fashion, who will shed light on what the sartorial clues can reveal about our subject's status, about the manufacture and global trade in textiles in the 18th century and more. And first, I'm delighted to welcome Dr. Ingrid Mida to this episode. Ingrid is an art historian, a dress detective, and a current research fellow at the Modern Literature and Culture Research Centre at Ryerson University in Toronto. I also understand Ingrid, that you have a forthcoming book titled, appropriately: Reading Fashion in Art, which I personally look forward to reading. So on that note: dress obviously features so prominent in this portrait. We have the figure standing three-quarter length presenting herself to us in this resplendent blue dress, and it's really one of the most or one of the greatest iconographic clues that we have to work with. But in general, first, what do you think we stand to learn by, quote reading fashion in art?

Dr. Ingrid Mida  2:00 
Thank you so much, Monique for inviting me to discuss this incredible painting. Fashion and figurative art are intimately connected since fashion is ever changing and only looks right at a given place and time. And although we cannot read a painting like a text, the dress worn in a portrait often embodies clues as to cultural beliefs, and the sitter's identity, especially in terms of class status and gender. In this particular portrait, the dress also offers clues that may be helpful in dating the work.

Monique Johnson  2:38 
Absolutely, and we really look forward to getting to that. But I know you also do research for museums and for costume collections under the guise that I mentioned,  the Dress Detective. So, under that guise, as the Dress Detective, what first strikes you about this particular portrait?

Dr. Ingrid Mida  3:02 
Well as the Dress Detective, I have to say what makes this portrait rare and unusual is the fact that it depicts a woman of colour, dressed in an exquisite and expensive 18th century gown. While I was doing the research for Reading Fashion in Art, I looked far and wide for artworks that reflected diversity of representation. And I really found it very difficult to find paintings from this time period that included women of colour unless they appeared in positions of servitude. When I first saw this work, I knew it was a rare and special painting, and I was so pleased that the AGO acquired it. But sadly that did not happen in time for me to include it in my book.

Monique Johnson  3:51
Well, fortunately, we have the opportunity to discuss it here now. And yes, we're so lucky to have it in our collection and to be able to share it with our public. Can you describe in a little more detail what the lady is wearing?

Dr. Ingrid Mida  4:09 
This lady is wearing a pale blue silk gown with a fitted closed-front bodice and a wide skirt supported by paniers or hoops. The low, square neckline of her dress is filled in with a scarf known as a fissue. Her dress has elbow-length sleeves, trimmed with horizontal bands of ribbon and finished with detachable lace cuffs. She's also wearing a pretty, decorative apron made of very fine silk gauze. Her unpowered hair is topped with a small, lacy white cap edged with silver thread and trimmed with blue ribbon.

Monique Johnson  4:51 
Thanks for that description. And based on some of that description, how can some of these details help us to date the painting. This is a question that we're all kind of eager to answer.

Dr. Ingrid Mida  5:06 
In looking at a dress in a portrait, one always has to keep in mind that an artist might have taken liberties, or that the sitter might be wearing a dress that was restyled, or that she borrowed from the artist or perhaps someone else. With those two caveats, each element of her dress, the color, the textile, cut, and style, and even the type of trim provide clues that can help date her ensemble based on what was in fashion at a particular time. For example, her dress skirt is not as wide as the fashions in Europe were in the 1750s. And the lower part of that skirt--even though we can't see it clearly--is not gathered or drawn up, suggesting that it's not a style of dress that was fashionable in the 1780s. And her elbow-length sleeves are decorated in a style that can be seen in other portraits from the 1770s. In terms of the colour of the dress, pastel blues, pinks, greens, and yellows were popular in 1770s. Even her hair, which is unpowered, and topped with a relatively small cap, suggests the early 1770s. Of course, it's possible that the dress may have been worn after it was fashionable. But generally portrait sitters want to appear at their best, especially since having a portrait made was such an expensive and costly proposition.

I think we certainly see that here and the portrait in terms of the absolute confidence and grace with which she's presenting herself to us, to the viewer. So working with that assumption that the painting dates to the 1770s, what do you think the dress and jewelry that she's wearing might tell us might, reveal about her social status?

Each part of this lady's dress ensemble are indicative of wealth and status because they would have been expensive to acquire. Not only is her silk dress very fine, but its silver edge trimmings and the lace cuts would have been very costly. Her fissue and apron of sumptuous translucence silk gauze. She also wears quite a bit of jewelry, a double-strand pearl choker necklace, pearl bracelets on each wrist and large gemstone earrings: each element of her ensemble would have been expensive, and thus act as clues to her social standing.

Yeah, I remember you showed us a couple of weeks ago when we were in the AGO a comparable image of a woman dressed in the similar double-stranded pearls, around the 1770s. So we can see that she's definitely fashionable then by 1770s standards.

I was going to add that pearls in particular were often considered signs of fidelity, which may suggest that they were associated with bridal wear.

Monique Johnson  8:26 
Fidelity, and I think also I've heard purity. They're this very kind of pure material gifted to us by nature. So that's interesting to read into these kind of symbolic clues potentially, in the dress and in jewelry itself. So I know that you were able to see this work in person, fortunately, for you, before the AGO closed its doors in response to this health crisis. Is there anything in particular that stood out to you when you were actually face to face with a portrait?

Dr. Ingrid Mida  9:04 
Well, again, I have to emphasize how rare and special this painting is, in terms of depicting a woman of colour. But what stood out for me when I was in front of the work in person at the AGO, again, were the elegant details of her dress ensemble, especially the really fine quality of the textile and its trims, which are not necessarily visible in a photograph of the work. And it's those small details that reveal clues as to this lady's identity, and are also helpful in dating the work.

Monique Johnson  9:43 
Yeah, these these little details definitely do add up. So we've arrived really at a probable decade for the work based on what you've helped us look at in terms of the style, in terms of the color, this pale blue, in terms of the construction of the dress. And we've also learned more about the social status of the figure. So thank you so much Ingrid for taking us through some of these costume clues as the Dress Detective and really for helping us 'Read Fashion in Art'.

Dr. Ingrid Mida  10:19 
Thank you so much, Monique. Every dress tells a story.

Absolutely. Now I'm delighted to welcome Dr. Alexandra Palmer to our dress discussion. Dr. Palmer is the Nora E Vaunn, Senior Curator, Global Fashion and Textiles at the Royal Ontario Museum, an associate professor of art history at the University of Toronto, and very excitingly, the recent recipient of the Costume Society of America's prestigious Millia Davenport publication award for 2020 for her book, Christian Dior: History and Modernity 1947 - 1957. Congratulations, Alexandra. And what's more, I understand it's the second time that you've received that award. So double kudos to you. And thank you so much for joining us today.

Dr. Alexandra Palmer  11:12 
Thank you very much, Monique. You're welcome. This is a wonderful picture.

Monique Johnson  11:17 
Yeah, we look forward to discussing. So we discussed with Dr. Ingrid Mida more details in terms of what the lady in the portrait is wearing. And we arrived at a decade, which is exciting, around the 1770s. So you can let us know what you think about kind of arriving at that moment, given the costume clues in the portrait. But thinking if you agree that we're in approximately that decade, could you let us know what you think as a costume scholar, what the the dress and jewelry then can tell us about our sitters social status in this particular historical moment?

Dr. Alexandra Palmer  12:05 
Well, this is a lovely portrait, and unusual because it's woman of colour. And I would like to say young woman, or young girl, perhaps which is where I seem to be going with the help of colleagues in England. And it's very light. And really the word 'Enlightenment' is what comes to mind with those shiny silks, the lightness of the textiles. The history of 18th-century fashion is really one of silk; silk design. That's where the money was in the costume. That's what you paid for. There were not designer labels, you weren't wearing swag in that way. Your swag was readable by the textile you're wearing. Very, very, very clearly people understood that. And what happens at this point in the last quarter, really of the 18th century is the moving away from patterned silks, which was the backbone of the French silk industry as well as to large degree English industry, and Spain and other places were making it as well of course, but pattern drawers that made those designs and those designs are very clearly readable as fashionable of that moment of that season. That's how we get this idea of seasonal styles that we're very embedded with in the fashion system today. And that was in the silk design. And that sort of goes out the window with the end of the 18th century and the moving towards Classicism, and great interest in sort of swathes of drapery. If you look at Joshua Reynolds' portraits, it's like, fabulous drapery that's shiny, lined, lustrous. And silk has this luster which is very clearly rendered in this portrait. And that's very important. So it's that reflection of light that you see in her dress, also the silk gauze which is very expensive, very hard to make; a very fine soft textile that's very, very delicate. It, you know, it snags it breaks, you're weaving it by hand on machines, you need very fine space, it's really hard. And of course her shiny jewelry, her pearls which are very lustrous, and her lovely earrings. So the whole thing, and this sort of lightness of dress and the translucency of it as well as almost to her skin, really, I think you know tells you about this move towards Enlightenment thinking and modernity and of course, being a woman of colour there, you kind of nailed it, because it's unusual: there's way fewer portraits of people in fashionable western style dress.

Dr. Ingrid Mida  15:17 
So it's interesting that you're pointing to the lustre, the light associated with the Enlightenment. And we can see the kind of delicacy of her touch being enacted in various moments where she's holding up her apron, for example, as well. But you're also speaking to a kind of restraint, especially in terms of that it's not a it's not a patterned silk, it is this plain silk as you've mentioned.

Dr. Alexandra Palmer  15:46 
Well, the plain is, is what's fashionable. She's a woman of fashion, she's absolutely up to date, except perhaps the lace cups under her sleeve, that hang down are a little bit old, older style. And she's very modest. She's very fashionable. She's, you know, the orange blossom begs inquiry and questions of what that's about, because obviously, it's very deliberate.

Monique Johnson  16:20 
We will explore that.

Dr. Alexandra Palmer  16:23 
And you know, those earrings, both of which are clearly shown, that frame her face. And those you know, Marcia Pointon, the art historian, talks about jewelry and brilliance and shiniess and the importance of different minerals and stuff like that in in painting. And these are very fashionable earrings from the 18th century, that sort of diamonds, the way you cut diamonds, the moving a black stone into a shiny refractive stone, and the way you could cut it became very skilled, very popular, very fashionable. And as she points out the importance, the social, and economic and also financial importance of diamonds began to outweigh that of pearls. But you know, she's got both.

Dr. Ingrid Mida  17:13 
She's covering all bases.

Dr. Alexandra Palmer  17:15 
Yeah, and maybe those are a new gift. Maybe those are a betrothal gift. I'm making this up. We have no evidence, but they are significant in the painting.

Monique Johnson  17:27 
Absolutely. I actually had a quote from Marcia Pointon about pearls: she calls them the 'purest of jewels, nature's gift.' And we can see that here, I think, potentially a kind of synonymous symbolism with the orange blossom.

Dr. Alexandra Palmer  17:45  
Well, and her.

Monique Johnson  17:46 
And her. Absolutely, yeah, she's embodying all of these all of these elements. Indeed.

Dr. Alexandra Palmer  17:52 
Yeah, no, that's very nice. Of me.

Monique Johnson  17:56 
So we know that she's wearing silk and lace in this portrait, I was wondering if you could tell us...

Dr. Alexandra Palmer  18:03 
And the delicate silk gauze, which is really important.

Monique Johnson  18:07 
The silk gauze as well,

Dr. Alexandra Palmer  18:08 
Yeah. Which we don't understand. It just looks like netting or something to us. But this, you know, reading in the 18th century: that was a really expensive, beautiful textile that only a few places made it and it was it was really special. The more delicate things are, the more fragile they are in terms of production and in terms of wearing, you don't want to snag it, and in terms of laundering and looking after and all these things that go with being able to present yourself in a way that's chic, and fashionable. And, you know, clearly shows that you're, you're someone who matters.

Dr. Ingrid Mida  18:51 
Yes, I think we feel that in, as I said, in her embodiment of these of these various elements. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about the production and trade in these textiles at this moment in the late 18th century?

Dr. Alexandra Palmer  19:09 
Um, well, silk has a very long history. Of course, in it, it came from China, made by silk worms. In fact, Dr. Yeager, in the 19th century thought it was bile because it was the excrescence of worms. What's  beautiful about it is this lustre, and it can be spun into various ways. And usually the warp thread, which is that the thread that holds the tension on the limb that goes up and down (the weft is the one that goes across) so the warp thread is usually stronger, because it's under so much tension. So you need two different kinds of threads. So someone needs to bring the thread from China, bring the silk which can then be spun into thread, it needs to be dyed. Then it needs to be woven on a loom, someone needs to decide what the pattern is going to be, what the colour is going to be all in advance, because what you're going towards is a textile that you're going to sell and make money on. And someone's going to want it. So you have to pre determine what those tastes are, what those colours are, what's going to entice someone with the latest colour, or the latest pattern to want to wear that and purchase your textile. And then you have to sell your product and these products went all over the place. They were huge, you know, trade,  shipping; the silk usually came from the East India Company, the Dutch, the French, the English. So there's a lot of money, and a lot of people tied up in getting, you know, the raw goods to the final product. And in this case on on someone's back, that we tend to forget about. We tend to think oh, you just get the fabric and you make it but there's you know, maybe a year or two years before that. For things to travel and to get tuned into the next level where it's going to be on something else.

Monique Johnson  21:19 
Not quite fast fashion at this point.

Dr. Alexandra Palmer  21:22 
Not yet. But they were definitely working towards that because speed and change in this, you know, the her her plain textile out is the latest style and is the latest fashion and that gauze is that latest fashion and the way her sleeve is pleated above her elbow. That's a newer fashion. And her her modest fissue, the scarf that she tucks inside, which might be very fine linen. And then there's the clothes she's wearing underneath of course to which had to be produced, which probably linen, which was very tough when it comes to Europe and Northern Europe. And so, yeah, you've got this world trade of goods.

Monique Johnson  22:13 
Yeah, absolutely global trade happening.

Dr. Alexandra Palmer  22:17 
Absolutely. Not to mention, of course the pearls and the diamonds, and all those things. And then someone still has to design them and put them together and the double, the paired bracelets were extremely fashionable. You see it on lots of portraits, as you do those kinds of set and cut diamonds.

Monique Johnson  22:36 
I was wondering if you could speculate about where such a dress might have been made possibly, or worn, and how far it might have traveled? You've already kind of alluded to the fact that this could appear kind of globally at this moment.

Dr. Alexandra Palmer  22:56 
Yes, well, she's I mean, she's wearing a fashionable style. What's, what's noticeable is her bodice that doesn't have a front opening, which is what you find in women's dresses. And it's also obviously that material and you can see it in the way that the materials almost kind of a stretch towards the back taught over stays. So she's wearing baleens, probably, she's wearing very carefully made for her pair of stays, which is what they call the corset in the 18th century that would lace at the back. And that's a shaped, tailored garment, made by man probably, or at least the pattern in the way it is fitted towards her is done like that. And it looks like the textile is very smoothly fitted over that and kind of made to be this kind of hard, you know, armorial body there in the torso. And it has to be done at the center back. Which means that someone has to help her; you possibly get into that by yourself. You have to be assisted. And if you're buttoning and you're not buttoning, but if you're lacing or pinning or dressing in the front, you can do that yourself. So and it was children and there are several portraits. I sent this picture to my colleague in England, at the School of Historical Dress, which is a wonderful place where they zero down into patterns and how things are really made and they're really doing amazing work. So Jenny told me that her colleague, Claire Thornton, who works there, had taken a pattern from a dress in The Hague, a child's dress that does do in the back and laces in the back like that and has a very similar shape to the front with that sort of almost spoon shape over the tummy. And I've never seen a dress like that, a child's dress, because they're very--they just don't survive, things get used and recycled. And I think that one's actually from an earlier textile too. So possibly she's, you know, a young woman who's about to get married and maybe have this sort of transition of style. So maybe that's what's happening with her bodice, which is unusual, and you don't see any, you don't see any seams painted. And the painter so clearly could paint a seam if he wanted to. And this dress that Claire had looked at in England, it wraps around like that. So there's just the seams are in the very back. So they wouldn't be visible. If indeed, that's what it is, which I think it's very possible. It's interesting.

Monique Johnson  26:05 
Yeah, that's intriguing. So that would point to youth? And are you suggesting that once the the rite of marriage happens, the dress, it would be done up at the front?

Dr. Alexandra Palmer  26:22 
I think so. Yeah, I mean, this is such a sort of transitional moment. Like there's a lot more fashions at this time that are coming into the fore in the 18th century. And you're, you know, where you're going is the turn of the century, and that, you know, the so called neo-classical and their little white dress and all that stuff. So that, yeah, women, I mean, you see these sort of more theatrical portraits with people sort of swathed in things... These dresses don't really survived like that. So it's very hard to know how much of that is fanciful. And because they're plain silks, hers in particular, like I was looking at Reynolds, like it's just masses of fabulous drapery, and like, that's all yard goods that you can endlessly redo lots of things with, and, and textiles were an economy, so they were used and recycled. It's absolutely normal to do that, you'd be foolish. And they were listed in inventories and stuff. Like that's how we know a lot of them because they had such high economic value. But these plain textiles, you know, could go on and on in various different ways, you know, they could become a pair of shoes even.

Monique Johnson  27:37 
Right. So that kind of leads into my final question, which is, when we're studying costumes and historical portraits, some scholars have suggested that elements might be imaginary on the part of the artist. I know that has been studied, particularly in the context of colonial portraiture, rather than representing the actual dress worn by the subject. As someone who works with the objects themselves, I was wondering to what extent you think this might apply in this case, and I suppose your correspondence with your colleagues, it's kind of revealed that there are such dresses, particularly with the unusual bodice at the front?

Dr. Alexandra Palmer  28:28 
Well, I think I mean, this sort of artistic license is perhaps more prevalent, as you move through time in the history of art into the 19th century, particularly like anyone who's having a portrait taken of them is investing in that and what they choose to wear is not a mistake, it's very, very carefully worked out. And whether that's, you know, as someone, you know, classical figure or whatever. And the fashionability of the dress was extremely important because it captured that moment. Of course portraits are repainted sometimes, people you know, aged or used. Sometimes textiles and those bits of dress are changed to maintain the portrait as a fashionable thing, so it doesn't look old fashioned. So there's, you know, lots of stuff going on. I think it depends on what that portrait is. So something like this, I think it's obviously commissioned to depict a moment of a particular person, it's not a fanciful, you know, mythological scene or something. It's very, it's very deliberate. And the textile, you know, the gauze and everything is rendered very carefully, very clearly. You see that. You know, the artists would I think probably show seams and stuff like that if, if that was important if that said something and they do tell you about cut and cut is fashion, and cut is timely.

Monique Johnson  30:11 
Well, thank you so much for all of these insights into this work. We look forward to, as you said, kind of piecing together what we can with the material evidence we have in the image, and turning to the orange blossom next, to studies of race and representation, when Adam speaks to Dr. Charmaine Nelson, and to putting our mind as well to that fascinating obelisk figure or element, as well.

Dr. Alexandra Palmer  30:43 
Yeah, well, I definitely look forward to hearing from everyone else.

Monique Johnson  30:47 
And thank you again for sharing all of your incredible knowledge about the trends and textiles particularly.

Dr. Alexandra Palmer  30:54 
You're very welcome.

A PORTRAIT OF POSSIBILITIES - Race and Representation

Race and Representation

We speak with Charmaine A. Nelson, PhD, Canada Research Chair in Transatlantic Black Diasporic Art and Community Engagement at NSCAD University, about issues of race and representation in eighteenth-century portraiture. Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Blossom was painted at the height of Trans-Atlantic Slavery. Dr. Nelson stresses the rarity of a “high art” individual portrait of a woman likely of African ancestry from this period. In discussing this portrait alongside two other paintings of women of colour whose lives we know more about, François Malépart de Beaucourt’s painting, variably called Portrait of a Haitian Woman and Portrait of a Negro Slave (1786), and David Martin’s Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and Lady Elizabeth Murray (c. 1778), Dr. Nelson questions how our subject had access to status and whether or not we can use the term agency in the context of her self-representation. What role did she play in commissioning the portrait and what was her relationship with the artist? What can we learn from this work where we presume the subject is a willing participant in her representation without being exploited or exoticized, bearing in mind that this portrait is “the exception not the rule”?

Watch the McCready Lecture on Canadian Art: Charmaine Nelson

Transcripts for Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Blossom - Race

Text transcript for this audio track

Race and Representation

Adam Levine 0:00 
Hello all and welcome to another episode of A Portrait of Possibilities, where curators at the Art Gallery of Ontario interview experts to learn more about our recent acquisition Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Nlossom.

Monique Johnson 0:12 
Throughout the series, we'll talk to specialists on topics as diverse as race, gender, botany, fashion and art conservation. To better understand the world that produced our enigmatic portrait of a woman of colour, standing outside in lavish dress, offering the viewer more questions than answers.

Adam Levine 0:31 
I'm Adam Levine, assistant curator of European art.

Monique Johnson 0:35 
And I'm Monique Johnson, interim assistant curator of European art.

Adam Levine 0:39 
In today's episode, I'm talking to Dr. Charmaine Nelson, Professor of Art History at McGill University, where she has taught since 2003. Nelson's research examines the visual culture of slavery in Canada, the USA and the Caribbean. She has published seven incredible books and I will name a few here: she has published two important anthologies on Black Canadian Studies. In 2004, she co edited a volume with her sister Professor Camille Nelson called Racism, Eh? A Critical Interdisciplinary Anthology of Race and Racism in Canada. And in 2010, she edited another anthology called Ebony Roots, Northern Soil: Perspectives on Blackness in Canada. She has championed a Black art history that focuses its lens on Canada and its history, with books like Legacies Denied: Unearthing the Visual Culture of Canadian Slavery, Towards an African Canadian Art History: Art, Memory and Resistance , and Slavery, Geography and Empire in Nineteenth-Century Marine Kandscapes of Montreal and Jamaica. Professor Nelson is the recipient of many, many awards and honours and she might be familiar to many friends of the AGO because she gave the McCready Lecture in Canadian Art History at the AGO in 2016. She was also my favourite professor when I myself studied art history at McGill years ago, both because she's an amazing lecturer, but also because she's incredibly generous with her time and her mentorship. One of Charmaine Nelson's greatest academic accomplishments is her groundbreaking research on another portrait of a woman of colour from the same exact historical moment as ours. And the McCord Museum in Montreal. Professor Nelson showed that Francois Malepart Beacuourt's painting which has been called 'Portrait of a Negro Slave' and which the McCord museum now calls 'Portrait of the Haitian Woman' from 1786 was likely the depiction of Marie-Therese Zemire near an enslaved woman owned by the Montreal painter's wife. So Professor Nelson was the first person I thought to call when we bought this painting. Professor Nelson, what are your first impressions of Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Blossom?

Dr. Charmaine Nelson 2:40 
Okay, well, thank you so much for that introduction, Adam. So first impressions are: it struck me that she looks like a mixed race woman, to me that has some degree of African ancestry, although I know, we can't say that with 100% certainty, because we don't know anything about her background at this point. But one of the things that struck me that if we are indeed dealing with a woman who is of so-called full or part African ancestry in the period that we're dealing with, the 18th century, of course, then there was still a prolific practice of Transatlantic Slavery across multiple empires, including Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, the Netherlands. So this would be then extremely rare if we're looking at a free or enslaved woman of African ancestry in this period. Why? Because one place to start then, would be that when we're dealing with any form of high art portraiture, meaning oil painting, or for instance, marble or bronze busts, this was a type of art from which Black people were thoroughly and prolifically excluded both as producers or artists, and as the sitters. And it's very rare that we find a fully-finished high art portrait of this nature that has a single sitter, that is a Black person depicted in such dress and garments, if you will, that signal luxury and upper class status.

Adam Levine 4:21 
We have so many images from this period that that sort of engaged the, quote unquote, African or African-descended figure as, as a trope or as, you know, sort of an adjacent object to show a white family's wealth. We just never really see them as individuals. And I think portraiture is so much the depiction of an individual.

Dr. Charmaine Nelson 4:48 
Absolutely. So there's multiple things then that you're, you're directing me towards here that we need to talk about. First and foremost: alright, so when you reached out to me and said, you know, there's this portrait you're acquiring at the AGO. The title is itself a giveaway, the title that the working title now at this point is 'Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Blossom'. So we can guess that this this artist J. Schult, definitely knew the name of this woman, because there's an interaction that's embedded in every portrait, meaning: the sitter, as we call the subject of a portrait actually had to sit with, right, be present with the artist, across days, weeks, months, and sometimes years for the portrait to be finished. So of course, it implies a relationship being built and it also implies that the artist knows who the sitter is. Now, take that a step further: customarily, the sitter in the portrait is often also the patron. Often, also the person who has paid and commissioned the portrait is to give them not just a likeness, but a flattering likeness. Now where this totally falls apart, is in the case of enslaved, or often free black people and people of colour. Why? Because when we're dealing with the historical moment, and we're dealing with things like imperialism, and colonialism and slavery, and especially if you stick with slavery for a moment, enslaved people, to be enslaved was to be chattel was to be movable personal property. So you are yourself deemed property under the law, meaning in most places, you were not allowed to accrue property, or were not supposed to accrue property yourself, because you were seen as a thing. Now, what the stages then is that we know them in a fundamental way, that most Black sitters that we see being depicted in any type of high art, then were not the patron. And as you just related Adam, then we have a plethora of images from aristocratic or upper class or middle class white households across Europe, where they use enslaved often Black child as an appendage, in a situation that displays individual or multiple white sitters. But the Black child there or the Black enslaved person was there to symbolize the white sitters' wealth and colonial reach. 'Look, I own this object from out there that came from Africa, or that came from the Caribbean.' That is not what's going on with this image. So what we have to ask here is, okay, why have we lost her name? Okay, so is it that he doesn't record it anywhere on the canvas? But is there a situation, was there a situation in the 18th century, where he did record her name, where she was a patron or related to the patron, for instance, the wife of the white man, let's say, or free man who commissioned the portrait? And if not, still, who are we dealing with that we have a woman of colour, in a period of heightened colonialism, imperialism, who has access to a status that signifies a sense of luxury and wealth in this way, in a moment when people who quote unquote, look like her, right? people who appear to be of African descent, are enslaved and impoverished? So the portrait then opens up a lot of questions about that. And then another layer too, Adam, is the fact that she is dressed in a way that's rather demure: she's properly covered, and it's not a sexual offering that we're getting. So the other thing we see in a lot of these portraits are is that Black women as enslaved or free Black women in this period of time in high and so called low art, so called high and low art, what is happening to them is they're being depicted in deliberately sexually exploitative manners. That is, they're being hyper-sexualized, and you referred at the top to the painting that I've been obsessed with, for, I guess it's two decades now, Beaucourt's Portrait of a Negro Slave, renamed Portrait of a Haitian Woman, and that poor woman, Marie-Terese Zemie has one breast out of her shirt, and her smile on her face. But of course, the whole problem there is in knowing and recuperating the fact that Beaucourt and his wife owned Marie, then what we can understand is this was likely a coerced sitting and an enslaved woman would never have had the choice to say listen, 'Francois,. I don't want to sit for this portrait. And I don't want to sit for it in this way with my breast exposed' because she was literally a property of his household. So that situation is not what we're seeing here. So again, we have to ask what is it about her and her social status, her station, and perhaps the fact that she may have been the patron of her own likeness, that allows her to be depicted in a way that's elevated, is more in accordance with how to be blunt, how white women in this period were depicted upper class white women.

Adam Levine 9:43 
 I just want to sort of tack onto that another way, sort of thinking about her as being dressed demurely: we've received a number of questions about a gesture that she's making with her hand where she's sort of clutching a layer of fabric in front of her legs. And in fact, this is, in our conversations with costume experts, we learned that it's very common for dresses in this period to have an apron made of the same or a different fabric that lies over top then many, many layers of skirt and hooping and structure. So, and some people have asked, Is this a sexual or sexualized gesture. this flicking aside the apron, and we've been able to learn that it's, you know, sort of totally devoid of sexual meaning. It's interesting how many people have asked us that they see her sort of pulling her dress aside, but in fact, that's not at all what's happening. So I just, you know, it came up, it came to mind, because it's because I totally agree, we sort of see her in so many ways, her dress and her pose are about, and maybe even the orange blossom could be about chastity, and, and this sort of demureness, as you say.

Dr. Charmaine Nelson 10:56 
Right. And the other thing that struck me about this too: okay, the artist has put a lot of attention on trying to create the specificity of different types of fabric, right? Rhe sheen of the silk or that whatever that you know, I'm not a material culture expert, but there's a sheen to the lower bodice of the dress. And then there's a like, clearly there's lace working on her bonnet and on her sleeves. So he's put a lot--or I assume it's a he it might be a woman, I guess, J Schul, we don't know--but the artist has put a lot of attention into trying to capture the different nature of the different materiality that that comprises her dress, including the jewels around her neck and on the ear, bobs etc. So, to me, too, if I think of a scholar like Kay Dian Kriz who talks about refinement in the context of slavery and imperialism, as another way, then.... here's the thing: this is a moment to where we're dealing with a lot of empires that have sumptuary laws, and the sumptuary laws get rolled out to police the people of colour they are colonizing. So it's like 'Hold up, we want to make sure we can tell who's who and part of the way we're going to do that in a world where increasingly we have so called miscegenation and sex between races, right? So the sexual boundaries are disappearing visually on people's bodies. So how can we still make sure we know who's who part of it is, you're not allowed to wear x, if you are an enslaved person, or if you are a so called, of the lower order,' right. But we know that a lot of enslaved people and free people of lower classes were like, 'Try to stop me', right. So a lot of that went out the window too, because it was so difficult to police that and and in part tpo, and here's a complexity, another layer of complexity, that in a case, like the Spanish Empire, you have in part white, the white Spanish men who are marrying or taking as concubines mixed-race, Black and white women, insisting that their women, sometimes who are their wives should be allowed to wear beautiful things, in part because how it reflects on the man's household so that these white men who are the ones who are making up the laws are also the ones who are pushing back against these laws, in different capacities as much in terms of how it reflects on them and their household, because so many of them are in relationships, often coercive or outright violent with enslaved and free Black women or mixed-race women. So that's the thing too, are we looking at a woman whose access to high art is perhaps coming through a white father, or a white slave master? Right, because we do have to, no matter who she ends up being she's a woman of colour, in a moment of heightened imperialism. So we have to ask, how is she accessing high art as a singular sitter of this type of portraiture and being depicted in such a luxurious non-sexualizing manner? Because it's totally extraordinary, when you look at the other artworks in this in this moment, that depict women of colour.

Adam Levine 14:07 
I'm really struck by just like how Baroque and contradictory and suffocating the logics of racism in this Imperial world are, you know, the sort of extent to which the same people advocate for sumptuary laws also wish to contradict them when it when it applies to them in the lives that they're building, and this sort of constant vacillation about whether white colonizers conceive of people of colour, especially Black people, as people or not. I think you raise an interesting point also about just maybe conceiving of her as, as a sort of, more broadly, like an imperial subject, in this moment, while we're still you know, as as maybe like an operating term while we're still not really sure very much about her story, or where she is? There are broad logics that we can certainly apply to thinking about this painting as we move closer to specificity in the research process.

Dr. Charmaine Nelson 15:12 
Yeah, absolutely. Can I just say too, to your point about the bizarre bizarre logic or lack of logic of the white men who were who were in power, you know, another case study for this is in Jamaica in the 18th century, the white men, mainly planters--because they dominated as politicians in the colony--they imposed against themselves a law limiting how much wealth they could leave to their mixed-race families. So they were policing themselves, right. So at a certain point, they were like, 'hold up a second,' because so many of them were keeping enslaved Black woman and mixed-race women as what they were calling concubines. So basically extracting all of the labor, social, sexual domestic labor for them, that you would get out of a wife, but never marrying them, basically. Okay, so of course, they were having mixed-race children with these women. So some of them, to get your point of are they persons are they're not persons, some of them are like, acknowledging their children, and to a degree, and it would vary. So some of them were like, 'Okay, you're not going to work in the field anymor, because I see that I understand that you're my son or my daughter, so you're not gonna do field labour.' Others will be like, 'Okay, so you work in the house'. Others be like, 'No, I'm going to liberate you now in life. And I'm going to send you to England to get educated.' So, all different degrees of what that acknowledgement meant. And then there were the men were just like, 'No, because of your Africanness or partial Africanness, you're just not a human to me, and you're still a slave, and I still own you, and I'm leaving you nothing.' But there were a group of men were like, 'No, on my deathbed,' usually it's on the deathbed, 'I will write into my will, a house or some pension for this woman and my children.' And then, because so much wealth is being accrued, there's a group of them pushed back and said, 'No, no, we're gonna put a limit on this. Because what we're going to have at the end is a bunch of free people of colour, who have a lot of money and land,' because also they were manumitting them on their deathbeds. And they're like, that can't happen. Because free people want what free whites get, right? Free mixed-race people want the same thing that we have, and we can't have that. So again, like with same thing with the sumptuary laws, like it's a white man, setting the rules which the white men are also breaking strategically when it suits them. But again, that it speaks to the issue of who's a person, right? And again, the sad thing is, it's these white men generally, who had the power to say, who's a person who's not under the law.

Adam Levine 17:44 
Yes, this strikes me is a perfect segue for thinking about Dido Elizabeth Belle. And so, you know, she's, she's come to mind a number of times, because I can really conceive of sort of three images that come from the 1770s, 1780s where we really can sort of talk about portraits with a question mark of, of women of colour by European artists. And, and that's our picture, and, you know, I think you've you've really added a tremendous amount of complexity to the portrait of the Haitian Woman / Portrait the Negro Slave / Portrait of Marie-Therese Zemire. But so the third image is this double portrait by David Martin of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Elizabeth Murray from the 1770s. Today, it's at Scone Palace in Scotland, and there's a replica in London, on the family estate that both of the the women depicted, lived on. And so Dido was the daughter of an enslaved woman, Maria Belle and a British aristocrat, John Lindsay. And he was and she was raised by Lindsay's family on their state and London, alongside her cousin. David Martin was hired by the family to paint the two young women. And there has been a movie made, there's been a book made. There's this amazing historical amnesia when people picture the painting, they often talk about it as a double portrait and make it seem like these two cousins who share a family are depicted as if they had equitable lives. The historical record, you know, definitely disillusions us of this idea. Dido Elizabeth Belle wasn't permitted to dine with the white people in her family or who visited. There are many accounts of her being invited to come down to join the party after the dinner. And she becomes sort of sort of a celebrity and I think maybe even an intellectual celebrity in Europe after she arrives there and and we're often led to think of John Lindsay as somehow like a white hero because he takes his daughter and recognizes her as a daughter. You know, she actually lives with her mother's last name, Belle. She doesn't live as Dido Lindsay, she lives as Dido Belle. And the painting doesn't really show them as equal. She appears in extremely, sort of, deliberately exotic dress, and she's behind her white cousin, and she's holding fruit and flowers. And so she sort of fulfills this trope of the African-descended attendant.

Dr. Charmaine Nelson 20:50 
Absolutely. And you know, the other thing that strikes me is, there's a really wonderful article by Angela Rosenthal, the art historian who wrote about blushing, and the way in the 18th century, you have European portraitists, who are heightening the blush of white men and white women, in terms of it being theorized as a way to distinguish... it's really complicated, I'll try to distill this because it's important though, but they theorize that white persons' ability to blush and have that be visible on the skin is a sign of their moral transparency. So that the fact that people of colours' blush does not register in the same way on the body, as a change of color on the skin necessarily, is a sign of their deceitfulness and immorality. So the the heightened rosiness of the white woman's cheeks too is something that we should not take for granted as just that's what she looked like. So it's also a way to reference and heighten the specificity of her whiteness as distinct from her cousin's Blackness. And the other thing of course, Adam, where you brilliantly point out that, you know, Dido was carrying a bowl of fruit, so natural goods; their level of of difference between the two of them, because the artists could have chosen have two of them sitting side by side both reading together. Right?

Adam Levine 22:15 
Sitting, right? Because her cousin is seated and she is not and so she is sort of, in this rightful place of white leisure.

Dr. Charmaine Nelson 22:23 
Right and behind, of course, the centerpiece of female beauty that is, of course, white female beauty in this in this heightened Eurocentric moment, which is the white woman, right, and the white woman, of course, needs to be at leisure, which is another sign of her status. So she's the one who gets to sit and read, and Dido is the one who's still physically moving through the space, which is a sign of labor. Right, whether or not she's enslaved, and we know that I think her father freed her, right. So we can see the the composition and the representation here are both being deployed to heighten the hierarchization between whiteness of blackness and white femaleness and black femaleness in this moment,

Adam Levine 23:11 
I know that you've written about head wrapping and depictions of head wrapping; do you have a sense of the sort of, turban that Dido is depicted with, with a feather sticking out of that? Is this like a colonial fantasy or...?

Dr. Charmaine Nelson 23:30 
I'm not an expert on head wrapping, but to me, this strikes me as nothing that is authentic to for instance, the Caribbean where we know that she was born. This looks to me like some Middle Eastern or Eastern fantasy created by white people and imposed upon Black people, which also leads to this issue of, where we go back to where you started earlier, Adam talking about the group portraits that included enslaved children and enslaved Black adults in the act of serving the white aristocrat or white upper class person. Often those Black people in those portraits are dressed in what we call what was called livery, meaning almost type of luxurious exoticizing uniform, which heightened again, the signal that they were domestic enslaved people, but also heightened the luxuriousness of their dress, heightened the status of the white people who own them. And Dido's turban to me, speaks to that same tactic, because if you look at for instance, the prolific representations of mixed-race and Black women enslaved and free from the ceded islands in the same period, the 18th century from the Italian artist, Agostino Brunias, the head wraps that don't look a things like this. Right? That an interesting case study because the ceded islands in the moment he was there were, of course being ceded from the French, to the British Empire. So you have multiple influences on the ground in those three island colonies. So you probably have a Creolized type of enslaved and free Black dress that has both British and French influences. So again, and Brunias is almost never representing Black or mixed-race women without a head wrap. And again, none of them look a thing like this. So, to me, this is, this is fantasy.

Adam Levine 25:34 
I think thinking about the ways that... it's easy to see that Dido Belle is probably not able to access a lot of agency in how she's depicted in this portrait. And even though she sort of legally enjoys the legal status of a freed woman, the more and more that we learn about her, you know, I think there are really important limitations on the agency that she lives her life with, that can also inform how we think about our Portrait of a Lady with an Orange Blossom: even if the subject is a free woman, which we have not confirmed yet, to what extent, you know, can a woman that looks like her in the imperialized world have freedom and live, like a fundamentally self-determining life?

Dr. Charmaine Nelson 26:28 
Absolutely. And you know, what, you brought up something so important right now in Slavery Studies scholarship, Adam, is that there's a lot of debate on whether or not we should even be using the term 'agency' to apply to any enslaved person ever. Right? So, do enslaved people ever, did they ever have a moment of agency, of true choice? Or was it basically, what I say to my students, where I've come to land is: No. Enslaved people had a series of you know, increasingly to decreasingly poor choices, 'choices' in quotes to choose between. And that's not agency. Right? Because almost, in some cases, for instance, every potential decision leads to a bad outcome. It's which outcome is the least poor for me, in my life, and which one will not get me killed. Right. So for instance, if you're thinking of someone resisting slavery, right by, let's say, 'Okay, I'm going to try to run away from my slave owners.' Well, that slave first has to think, 'All right, what happens if I get caught? Do I think the slave owner will whip me perhaps what me publicly and spectacularly in the market square? Or will they literally kill me to make an example of the fact that they don't want people to resist in that way?' Is that agency? Like, right, someone's making a decision. But in that case, none of the potential outcomes are good or perfect, because even if they quote unquote, get away permanently, if they're successful in their fugitive attempts, they still have to live, sleep with one eye open, for the rest of their lives thinking that their slave owner is still hunting them. Righ? And using the apparatus of printing technology, for instance, to prolifically print Fugitive Slave ads for their recapture. So again, a term like agency, what do we do with that? Do we use it at all? Or do we just throw it out and come up with new terms when we think through the lived experiences of enslaved people?

Adam Levine 28:37 
One thing that I've been thinking about a lot, is sort of a white supremacist bias in how we look at these images. Because we trust the artist to be a reliable narrator: that we believe that these images offer some semblance of realism, and that they can give us an image of who these people look like, what those people look like. One area that I see this and it's earlier but I think it's important, is that the sort of great Spanish painter Velazquez owned and enslaved person, Juan de Pareja, and he has a portrait of Juan de Pareja that he painted in, I think, 1650, that's at the Met. Juan de Pareja, later became a painter himself. He was freed at the end of Velazquez's his life, and he includes his own sort of self portrait in some of his paintings. And it's not uncommon within 17th century art history to say that, to say that there's a belief that that Juan de Pareja alters his image to appear whiter or to appear more respectable. And the bias there is that people believe that Velazquez is more reliable painter of Juan de Pareja's image than Juan de Pareja himself. As if Velazquez doesn't have an agenda, to darken the skin of Juan de Pareja and make him appear more quote unquote exotic, or to sort of underlie this logic of black skin justifying enslavement.

Dr. Charmaine Nelson 30:23 
For sure. And you know, to that second point to with this idea that when a black person who was enslaved gets a chance to represent themselves, of course, they're going to want to whiten themselves: who says? There's a lot of evidence in the archives, that Black people are fiercely proud of their African ancestry. And they did countless different things to try to preserve that. For one thing, for instance, we know in part from fugitive slave ads, which I just mentioned, Adam, and again, just so our listeners understand what they are, those were the printed advertisements that slave owners would put either as posters or bills that would be posted in like say an external places or a tavern or bar or printed in a newspaper to do what? To try to recuperate an enslaved person who has fled from them. And what they detailed were things like the first name because as an enslaved person, you don't have a last name. Usually the age or whatever the approximate age they thought the person was, the clothing because enslaved people usually had one set of clothing, and any specific marks or scars on the person, maybe skills because they think you're going to get away and try to like practice that skill set in order to kind of make money to survive. So why I was talking about fugitive slave ads is one thing you find in fugitive slave ad in terms of resistance and preservation of Africanness is the slave owners are having to admit that the Africans they're pursuing, call themselves by their African names. So when you have African, yeah, amazing, eh? So when you have African-born enslaved people, they'll say, I call this person 'John', but he calls himself this. Right? So you have a disclosure there of African resistance in terms of name preservation, but we also see it of course, in terms of dress in terms of spirituality and religious practices like burial, right, in terms of food, in terms of grooming, like hair practices, etc. We see it all over the place. In the Canadian context, there's an interesting case where we have an enslaved Black male named Jean Baptiste. And at the point where he gets his freedom, he changes his name to Jean Baptiste l'Africain. I was like, Yeah! So I said to my students, do you get this?Hhe changed his name to emphasize his Africanness. So back to the Velazquez thing, who says that Velazquez's depiction is more accurate than that of the enslaved man who gets to represent himself. And it's not always a case of enslaved person being so desirous of whiteness, that they're trying to white and lighten themselves throughout their lives and white and lighten their descendants. Sometimes it's the exact opposite. They're trying to push back against that, and they're trying desperately to hold on to their Africanness which is being deliberately withheld from them through things like prohibitions, laws, confiscations, material deprivation, that's endemic within the institution of slavery.

Adam Levine 33:20 
I think that, you know right now, in the midst of a groundswell of movement to end police violence, and to sort of dismantle white supremacy, a lot of the messaging is that, that non-Black people need to listen to Black people communicating their experience. And I think that historians need to do that with their, the Black subjects that they're studying. You know, that there's a way that we can radicalize our history writing and history telling, simply by trusting the Black subjects that we are studying to tell their own stories, rather than trusting the white subjects whose motivations at the time are literally to reiterate, and reinscribe the white supremacist lie that Black people are not really people.

Dr. Charmaine Nelson 34:19 
Absolutely. And art history is really guilty of not doing this, of not centering Black Lives, Black experiences, Black histories, because, Adam, when you look at the field of Slavery Studies, one of the smallest fields from which the least contributions have yet emerged is art history. So the historians are at the table. The sociologists are there, the anthropologists are there, right? The linguists are there, everybody's studying creolization, etc. or dress, or labour, language, all of it. Who's missing in action? The art historians. And why this is so appalling is because, this is what people need to get: when we talk about 400 years of slavery across again, multiple empires, this did not just entail you know, 'I call you cargo, I put you on the manifest, I throw in the bowels of ship, I take you and I extract labour from you'. None of this could have functioned without white people hoarding access to visual representation. So, 'I will represent you as this thing I call a chattel, as this thing I called cargo, as this thing I call a slave, as a thing I call Negro; you cannot represent yourself.' So you bombard, right? You fill the visual field with these stereotypes of Africanness which justify the enslavement of this entire race of people. Well, first, you fabricate this thing called 'Race', but you justify the enslavement of the entire group of people, through in part, their visual, them being visually demeaned as not just inferior, sometimes an inferior type of human. We have to understand some white people literally believe that black people were another species. Species! Meaning they thought that a white person having sex with a Black person could not actually result in offspring. When you look around the empires, of course, there are all these things that, they were calling all these people they were calling mixed-race people, right and coming up with names like mulatto, quadroon, and octoroon. Yet they've had a group of scientists who are swearing up and down, 'This is another species. We can't even, so called mate with them.' So again, to go back to your point, we have a visual archive too, that's 400 years of production, that art historians who are the people who have the ability to read, analyze and decode these images. Where are we in doing this work? And part of how this gets done, Adam, and I know you know this from your education in different moments, but part of that is done in the silos in which art historians specialize. So how does this work, or map out? 'Oh, well, I'm a 19th century scholar of France.' 'I'm an 18th century scholar of Britain.' 'I'm a 17th century scholar of the Netherlands or Dutch art.' Now, nothing wrong with that. But the problem is, all of those places, all those nations, in all of those centuries, were not nations: they're empires. Nut professors don't teach them like empires, in general. And let me call a spade a spade, white professors teach that teach in those silos, as nations as national histories of art. So the person who teaches 17th century Dutch won't talk about Dutch holdings in the Americas at that moment, and will introduce the art and artists and representations of enslaved people and a white slave owners in that same moment in the 17th century Dutch Empire; you see how that gets shut down? That's how we actually teach in these nationalistic discourses that then pretend that colonialism, imperialism, slavery was not happening in the moments when these European artists then are being talked about and exalted.

Adam Levine 37:59 
You know, some of the work that I'm hoping to do, I'm fairly new in my role, and all of this, I think, always will come back to the formative education that I had with you at McGill, is just thinking about following the money, and urging people to follow the money. And maybe the most obvious and tangible example is gold, which is being extracted from the Americas by enslaved Black people. And it manifests in literally the gold leaf on Rococo frames. But just asking, like, Who, what paid for the paintings that we call great works of Western art. I know at the very least, like the 'Dutch Golden Age', that's fascinating, like, where is the gold coming from that's paying for this. Right? And, and trying to think it's not just that the paintings are funded by it, but often the gold frames I think, are this very tangible link to Black enslaved labour and resource extraction from colonized lands.

Dr. Charmaine Nelson 38:59
For sure. And I'm sorry, I'm gonna forget which scholar has already worked on this, or which scholars, but I've heard scholars say like, 'We want to throw that term out, Golden Age, because golden age for whom? It wasn't a golden age for the people who were being enslaved in the Dutch Empire.' So you know, to really think about to how we're naming things too and practices in moments in especially in the discipline of art history, and the way that that further then centers whiteness.

Adam Levine 39:28 
One thing that you mentioned earlier, that I'd love to ask you to expand on is just that fruit is sort of this common thread in all three paintings. Marie-Therese is holding a tray of fruit and you've worked extensively on the different kinds of fruits that are on the tray; Dido Bell is also holding a tray of fruits and the Portrait of a Lady, you know, she's holding an orange blossom, which we have confirmed with the botanist is indeed an orange blossom. And while in the 18th century, that's sometimes a symbol of chastity or of marriage and fidelity, I'm struck by the fact that it still is very much legible as an exotic fruit variety, and that it's really impossible to pretend that it's not the same thing as when white women are depicted in the 18th century holding an orange blossom.

Dr. Charmaine Nelson 40:22 
Thank you for that too, because here's the thing, we see this pattern of association between Black female bodies and vegetation or plants go right up to our moment. In my Masters, when I did my masters at Concordia, there's a lot of Canadian 20th century images done by artists, I think like Lauren Harris, Jr. has one, 'Negress in Studio'. That's the name of a work, where he feels like he has to put a potted plant beside this unclothed Black woman. And of course, Dorothy Stevens 'Coloured Nude' where she's standing in front of this very fake-looking tropical backdrop. And of course, Dorothy Stevens a Toronto-based painter who was often painting models in Canada. So I think part of what happens too, what we always have to question is: are the use of plants and specifically tropical plants away to externalize the Black body from the west? So, at what point do Black people get to be Canadian? At what point? So here's the question, too: we don't know where this portrait was conceived, where it was completed, we don't know where she sat for this. But if she sat for it, let's say in France, why did the portraitist feel the need to include a tropical plant in his depiction of a woman in France? Right? And again, part of it, what we see across history is, it's a way to always point at the woman of colour, or a man of colour's body as foreign, regardless of if they've been in France, in Germany, in Britain, in the Netherlands for four generations, you never get to be of that Western space, right? And that's part of what's going on today in the the great tumult and uprisings in the streets, right? Part of the connection between the failure of citizenship for Black people is, is our constantly being positioned as not of the spaces which we inhabit. Right? That dislocation. So I think we need to think seriously, when we find out where she is from and where this portrait was actually conceptualized and produced, then: how is this orange blossom and the orange plant behind it functioning for her? And is it indeed, trying to bring us back to, or signal a tropical location? Not just as her heritage, but her presence, as opposed to where she actually sat for the painting?

Adam Levine 43:13 
By way of conclusion, if you'd be comfortable, I wonder if you have, I think there are two different desires that I'm interested in: what do you want or what do you hope that Black viewers can learn or experience by seeing this painting on the walls in the AGO? And what do you hope white visitors can learn from seeing the painting in the AGO?

Dr. Charmaine Nelson 43:36 
Oh, wow. Okay. So I think in a lot of ways, Adam, I want them to learn the same thing. So first of all, I want people to understand, because often people don't understand that there are historical, high art images of Black people who are not being exploited in outright exoticizing or being exploited outright hyper-sexualized manners, right? But I also want them to realize that a portrait like this is the exception, not the rule. So I don't want them to go away thinking, 'Oh, look, Black people or women of color, were always represented really beautifully in wonderful clothing, and everything's okay. And slavery must not have been that bad,' because a lot of people will look at her, will read her as Black or partially Black, whether or not that's true, and they will situate it in the period of Transatlantic Slavery, which most people will know very little about. And they'll want to create a narrative of how everything was better than they've been told. So I want them to hit pause on that. And first of all, think about the fact that we're looking at an exceptional portrait in many ways. And one of the other layers here too, and we didn't talk too much about is the directness of her gaze. And the fact that she has to me a rather indistinct expression: it's not a full smile, but it's not one of displeasure either, so I read it as her being a willing participant in the sitting. But she's not, you know, giving us a toothy grin or anything like that. Whereas Marie-Therese Zemire in Beaucourt's work is like an outright smile. So he is depicting her as being at peace with, at one with, and actually the force behind her self-exposure and offering of her body to us, right? Because she's smiling while she's doing it. So people don't understand that he owned her and that that was of course the situation. Then they come away thinking, 'Oh, well, she's offering your body to us, and she's smiling.' So one thing too, that people need to understand: a portrait is not a photo. Because Adam, I'm telling you, some people don't get that. You know, I was in a workshop with academics, not other art historians, but I'm telling you one of the other historians was like, 'Well, she's smiling. And so she was smiling in sitting.' I'm like, 'Oh, my God, is this where we're at?' I'm like, 'Do you not understand this is not a time, this is not a time-based medium in the same way as a photo.' When we have a photo, we know the person actually had that expression for at least several seconds in their life. But even that doesn't mean that's how they felt. Because there's a lot of photos too. There's a lot of photo, for instance, in the USA, Brazil, and Cuba, right, where we have a plethora of photos of enslaved people. Why? Because the three of them, the three of those states abolished slavery so late, right 1865 in the USA after the Civil War, 1886 I believe in Cuba, and 1880 in Brazil. But there's a plethora of photos, especially of enslaved Black women caring for white babies, all right? And that's another story, we have to have another day, another conversation.

Adam Levine 46:37 
I look forward to making all of the conversations you want to have!

Dr. Charmaine Nelson 46:42 
You know, but there's a plethora of photos like that where the woman is smiling for the moment. You cannot interpret from that, that she was happy being enslaved in the household and happy being kind of supplement to the parental, you know, memorialization of the preciousness of a white baby. Even though she's smiling in the seconds that the photo was taken. So how much less can we say what this woman actually was feeling as being accurately conveyed by the expression in the portrait when we know again, portraits like this were conceived over days, weeks, months, sometimes years. So we have an inkling though that because she's represented as such an upper-class, refined lady, I think is appropriate term like a gentlewoman, that she hopefully had a hand in the patronage of her own likeness, hopefully. But we have to say 'hopefully', too, because again, so many people of colour at this period did not have the wherewithal, the homes, the access to high art in order to commission their own likenesses. And to, through that commission, demand the likenesses be flattering. So we have to think about really seriously, if she was the patron of her own likeness. That's a big question that all audiences need to think about. I think for white people, what I want to say is, again, to hit pause on your tendency to make an image like this make you feel better in terms of histories of slavery, because I want to tell you: it's exceptional. And for Black people, I want to say, you know, it's I can see how that is heartening for a lot of Black viewers to think, 'Wow, there were people of colour, perhaps a mixed race or so called fully-Black or fully African woman in a historical moment of translatic slavery.' Whether or not she's free or enslaved, who had access to fine things, to luxurious things in a way that kind of indicates that she had a middle or upper class status. Because I think for a lot of Black people, we don't get to see images like this, of ourselves and of our ancestors. So there's kind of two gazes coming at this image. And I think there's two, two different things we have to be conscious of then, in that sense.

Adam Levine 49:00 
Thank you so much. I am always happy to talk to you because I learned so much every time I talk to you. And I want to thank you again for for your time and for your insight, because I think that you've really helped us to add new layers of understanding to this painting and what it can mean, what it might have meant and what it can mean for us right now. And I just think it's really important that more people hear from you, because I think that the work that you're doing is really just essential and important and everyone should know about it. Thank you.

Dr. Charmaine Nelson 49:31 

Adam. And I hope this isn't get edited out but I just want to say that Adam was one of my favorite students ever.

Portait of a Lady with Orange Blossom - The Orange Blossom

The Orange Blossom

The lady in the portrait holds a flowering sprig in her right hand. How do we know it’s an orange blossom? We ask Deborah Metsger, Assistant Curator of Botany at the Royal Ontario Museum to help us definitively identify the plant. We learn about where and how orange trees grew in the eighteenth century and who might have owned a potted specimen like the one shown in the painting. There’s a long tradition of portraits of women holding flowers in European art. We discuss the potential symbolism of the orange blossom and the curious lack of orange fruit in this portrait.

Historical botanical illustrations used for comparison

Citrus aurantium

Citrus aurantium melitense

Transcripts for Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Blossom - Orange Blossom

Text transcript for this audio track

The Orange Blossom

Adam Levine  0:00
Hello all, and welcome to another episode of A Portrait of Possibilities, where curators at the Art Gallery of Ontario interview experts to learn more about our recent acquisition, Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Blossom.

Monique Johnson  0:12
Throughout this series, we'll talk to specialists on topics as diverse as race, gender, botany, fashion and art conservation to better understand the world that produced our enigmatic portrait of a woman of colour, standing outside in lavish dress, offering the viewer more questions than answers.

Adam Levine  0:31
I'm Adam Levine, assistant curator of European art.

Monique Johnson  0:35
And I'm Monique Johnson, interim assistant curator of European art. In today's episode, I'm delighted to speak to Deborah Metzger. Deborah is the assistant curator of botany at the Royal Ontario Museum and curated the current exhibition Florals: Desire and Design, which explores the European fascination with plants and flowers in the 1700s as expressed through botanical illustration and botanical motifs on Indian painted cottons that were exported from India to Europe. In this era of colonialism and global trade, plants and flowers played a part in Europe's imperialist impulse to collect and consume goods. Deborah, we're really looking forward to learning more from you today about the botanical element in our portrait, so thank you so much for joining us.

Deborah Metzger  1:24
Thank you so much for inviting me, Monique. This is a really unique painting and a great opportunity.

Monique Johnson  1:33
When we acquired the Portrait of a Lady in January, it was indicated that the plant featured in the portrait was an orange blossom. Looking at the work, this detail on the painting is really given considerable attention, which is why it's included in the descriptive title. But just to be clear, this is not the title the artist assigned to the work-- we unfortunately don't have a record of that. We see the young woman's raised hand which is delicately holding a small sprig with narrow green leaves, two blooming white flowers and two buds. So there's a long tradition of portraits of women holding flowers in European art. In fact, during research, I discovered that there's actually a Wikimedia Commons page devoted to such images from the 15th through the 20th centuries. So on one hand, we're working with a conventional pose and prop in the history of portraiture. But within this tradition, flowers of different varieties came to symbolize different things. So perhaps the first question we can ask you, Deborah, as a botanical expert is, when you look at this element within the image as a curator of botany, can you confirm that the blossom and the potted tree behind it are both oranges?

Deborah Metzger  2:56
So I'm going to answer that in two parts: what is immediately apparent is that the spring that the young lady is holding in her hand is from a citrus tree, and that its leaves and flower clusters are the same shape as those on the potted tree in the background, even though the leaves on the tree appear to be bigger. Oranges is belong to the genus Citrus in the plant family Rutaceae along with lemons, limes, grapefruit and pomelo. All citrus species have an alternate leaf arrangement and five pedaled white flowers that are born in elongate clusters on the plant simultaneously with the fruit. The species of citrus differ in the types of fruits that they have and in the shape of the leaves and the spines on the stem.

Monique Johnson  3:50
Okay, so if it is citrus, then how do you determine which kind?

Deborah Metzger  3:55
So I assess the different parts of the plant separately. We can rule out lemons and limes because their leaves tend to be broader and rounded while those in this painting are elliptical or long ovals: slightly wider, below the middle with a narrow wing at the base where it attaches to the stem along what we call the petiole, or leaf stock. Most lemon leaves lack these wings. The edges or margins of the leaf are slightly rolled under and the veins give the leaves a slightly bumpy texture. This is consistent with oranges, both sweet oranges (Citrus sinensis), and bitter or Seville oranges (Citrus aurantium). To distinguish between these two groups, we'd really need to see a little more detail of the leaves, which the artist hasn't given us. We then look at the flowers on the sprig and I found these to be distinctly five peddled with a column of stamens--the male flower parts--in the middle that are fused together at the base, forming a white tube or sheath, with the orange anthers clustered at the tip, so this solid structure that we see in the middle of the flower in the painting, is what I'm describing. This kind of fusion is distinctly different from the individual filaments that you find in the stamens of many other plants. So it's very much a distinct feature of citrus.

Monique Johnson  5:31
So you're referring to that kind of tubular element on top of the open petals.

Deborah Metzger  5:37
That's right. And when compared to orange flowers in historical botanical illustrations, or contemporary photographs, the petals in the painting are much shorter with rounded tips. And I wondered about that: orange blossom petals, and indeed, lemon and lime pedals narrow to a point, the tips of the pedals in the painting are not as precise as the rest of the drawing. And I wonder if they'd been painted as if they were curled under?

Adam Levine  6:07
Okay, it's interesting, because as you say, if I look closely, they don't really appear to be rendered as if they're curled under when we zoom in on the image. It's true that we're obviously not dealing with a botanical illustration here. So the artist has taken some creative license and possibly abstracted or simplified these flowers.

Deborah Metzger  6:30
That could be, although the overall structure is very distinct. And though not as precise as a botanical illustration, I was really impressed by this painting, that the leaves in the painting are very detailed. And as I say, the flowers are morphologically distinct, so it's not a botanical illustration, but it's a very well rendered image of the plant that he wanted to portray. It's interesting to note that the leaves in the floral sprig are much smaller than those on the tree, which I mentioned earlier, the perspective seems to be slightly off, there is a hint of immature green buds at the top of the tree, but no flowers. So the emphasis is definitely on the sprig.

Monique Johnson  7:21
Mm hmm. So even if we look at it, the way the light hits the leaves on the sprig and that contrast between the flowers, and as you say, the lack of any blossom or fruit on the tree, which is actually quite curious. So in comparing this to other portraits with oranges, this is actually somewhat unusual. We will return to that. But can we deduce any more about the type of orange tree that's represented? As you say it's kind of rendered quite well.

Deborah Metzger  7:52
I've consulted some botanical illustrations from the 18th and early 19th century to see if that would assist us in determining a type of orange blossom. From them, I conclude that this is an orange tree, and that the blossom is either Citrus aurantium, the bitter orange or Citrus sinensis, the sweet orange. Unfortunately, the taxonomy or naming of plants at that time, was still in flux. And the name 'Citrus aurantium' was applied to both sweet and bitter oranges. So it's difficult to use the illustrations for a precise identification. Subjectively, I lean toward bitter or Seville orange, citrus aurantium. But the artist has not provided us enough precise detail to really tell. And as we say it wasn't intended as a botanical illustration. As a further test, I tried comparing the floral sprigs to other paintings of ladies with orange blossoms, and certainly found them to be similar.

Monique Johnson  9:00
Interesting, I think in the illustrations that you sent me the botanical illustrations, to my very novice botanical eye, if I can even call it that, I definitely thought this citrus aurantium looked the closest as well. So under our interview on the dress with Dr. Ingrid Mida, and your colleague, Dr. Alexandra Palmer, w e've linked to a great essay on the portrait, which was featured on the fashion history timeline written by fashion scholar Kenna Libes. The focus of her essay is definitely on the costume depicted, but she makes this interesting suggestion that although the blossom is an orange the tree may possibly be a frangipani in the genus Plumeria, which is indigenous to Central America as she notes. I think most often when a blossom and a tree are represented together in a portrait of this type they tend to be of the same kind, the implication really being that the sitter has kind of plucked the sprig off the tree. But do you think this could be an exception here and what do you make of the frangipani suggestion?

Deborah Metzger  10:12
So what's really interesting and to be honest, a bit frustrating about this painting is it the tree in the background is very dark when compared to the spring so it's hard to see the detail, especially when looking at a photograph, which we've had to do during COVID, rather than the real painting. I actually had to adjust the contrast in the images so that I could more clearly distinguish the leaves from the background for the tree. And I found them to be the same shape with the distinctive winged or notch leaf base that I mentioned before and the short leaf stalk. The single cluster of buds on the tree matches the shape and orientation of the flowering sprig in the lady's hand. This suggests to me that the painter was depicting the same kind of plant. The suggestion of frangipani made some sense to me from the perspective of the habit of the tree, with the elliptical leaves that, as I mentioned before, are larger and have a different perspective than those on the sprig and that appear to be erect and tightly clustered, almost sprouting from the top of the tree rather than branching. However, it's always important to remember that when identifying a plant in nature, as a decorative motif, or in a painting, we have to look at all of its features because a plant is a sum of its parts. When I do that, there are several important differences between frangipani and the features on the potted tree. Frangipani leaves are not tapered at the base the way these are. Frangipani has a branching flat top flower cluster of trumpet shaped flowers. While our tree, like the lady's sprig has an erect elongated flower cluster bearing stopped oval buds. And finally, the tree trunks are different. Given the degree of detail with which the artist has executed the flowers and the leaves, I would expect the diagnostic features would also be detected on the tree trunk. Frangipani bears distinctive leaf scars on its trunk that give it a pockmarked appearance. This is a diagnostic feature that shows up in botanical illustrations from this era. The details of the trunk in the painting are very hard to see, but it appears to be smooth rather than distinctly patterned. So overall, I'm afraid I'm going to have to reject the suggestion of frangipani and I feel really confident that the artist is depicting a single kind of plant and that all of its features indicate that it is a species of orange.

Monique Johnson  13:03
Okay, great interesting. So if the frangipani tree might have suggested a Central American location for this work, but we assume these to be representations of a single plant an orange tree, and working within our timeframe of 1770 to 1780, which we've established, where might such an orange tree have grown in this period?

Deborah Metzger  13:27
To be honest, Monique, almost anywhere in Europe or warm regions of the New World world.

Monique Johnson  13:33

Deborah Metzger  13:35
Oranges originated in Southeast Asia and southern China. Bitter or Seville oranges were first imported to Sicily and Spain in the ninth and 10th century. Sweet oranges from China arrived in Europe in the 16th century, and between the 17th and 18th century spread across Europe and into subtropical and tropical areas of the New World. The entomologist and artist Maria Sibylla Merian, who was a Dutch entomologist, painted one in Suriname when she traveled there and 1699 and included it in her book Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, published in 1705. There are paintings of oranges in the treatise, Flora Indica and Flora of the Coromandel coast that were compiled by the botanist William Roxborough at the Calcutta Botanical Garden in India in the late 18th century. And one of the most curious things: Philip Miller, who was chief horticulturalist of the Chelsea Physic Garden in London, had in his 1768 edition of his Gardeners' Dictionary, detailed descriptions of oranges grown in England, Italy and Spain. He also mentions the trade of plants back and forth to the West Indies. In other words, by the late 18th century oranges had a worldwide distribution in warm climates and were grown indoors in cooler climates.

Monique Johnson  15:09
Okay, so this doesn't exactly help us in arriving at a location but nor does it limit us. Let's say the sprig is being held by the sitter, a woman of colour, whose identity and story we don't yet know, we'll get to potential symbolism... but the point is being raised that perhaps the blossom could signal a more specific location for the sitter. This is, as you mentioned, the Age of Imperialism, and you're suggesting that oranges could be anywhere. So why did they spread so widely?

Deborah Metzger  15:42
Oranges were prized not only for their edible fruits, which by the 1700s, were known as a cure for scurvy, and were used by sailors going around the world. But they're also known for, and used for natural oils produced by glands in the flowers, in the leaves, and in the rinds of the fruit that were used for perfumes and for flavoring foods. And so this is a long historical usage of these plants. Orange blossoms are recorded as components of flower arrangements in England, France and the Netherlands in the 17th and 18th century. And we know by accounts like those of Philip Miller, that they were widely prized for gardens and other things. So they were a luxury item that everyone wanted.

Monique Johnson  16:35
Okay, so you mentioned how they were grown in warm climates or indoors in in cooler climates. So I'm sure that brings to mind the orangerie for many people. Orangeries were of course, were popular around this time. Can you explain what they are?

Deborah Metzger  16:55
So yes, so as I was saying, aren't just grow best in a subtropical or Mediterranean climate. They don't do well in the intense heat of the extreme tropics. And they're not winter hardy in the cool temperate climates of Northern Europe and North America. So orangeries were specially-constructed buildings, with large south facing windows and fires for heat. They were built by royalty and wealthy merchants to house orange trees in the winter months, and eventually other more tropical plants as well. The plants were kept in clay pots that could easily be heated in one account if icicles formed. They used lamps to come in and heat around the plants so that they would be able to survive the cooler winter months. The intense popularity of orangeries dates from the mid 1600s through to the early 1800s when they were replaced by fully glass stove houses as we know today. One of the most famous was built for Louis XIV in Versailles in the 1670s but orangeries existed throughout France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, the UK and the Americas. George Washington built one in his plantation at Mount Vernon. Orangeries were built in a period referred to as Orange-omania when oranges were the current horticultural craze and we know that crazes like this went in waves, from Tulip-omania earlier through to this particular one at this time.

Adam Levine  18:50
Okay, so we also have to consider who grew them, who grew oranges. You mentioned wealthy hobbyists tending to their oranges in their orangeries in their formal garden so, and you included George Washington and his plantation Mount Vernon. So this portrait was painted at the height of Transatlantic Slavery. Even if citruses were more of a novelty plant grown on a kind of smaller scale during this period, I wonder if the oranges grown for foodstuffs, or to be used in perfume, might have depended on enslaved labor. As was the case with George Washington, hobbyists with orangeries might also have been enslavers. I'm just wondering about the kind of overlap in people engaged in kind of hobbyist growing of exotic fruit?

Deborah Metzger  19:45
So you're correct money that the owners of orangeries may indeed have been in slavers. In my research, I haven't been able to discover a lot about orange production in the 18th century. We know that a lot of it was occurring in Mediterranean regions, in southern Italy, but I haven't been able to find out a lot about who the labour forces were. We know that on the scale of things, they were much smaller operations. But what I can say is that I don't think they depended on enslaved labour nor drove the slave trade in the way that cotton and sugarcane did. We know that they required a lot of people, and that was the driver, those particular crops were the driver of the slave trade. This was a very different kind of horticulture on a very different scale.

Monique Johnson  20:48
Okay, so the tree shown in the portrait is a potted specimen--we see the pot that it's growing and grown on a small scale, as you mentioned, presumably by someone with means. So just as the young lady's dress and her jewelry are indicating status, it seems that the the plant is also serving to point to the prestige of the sitter. You've already mentioned royalty and wealthy merchants; can you elaborate on who might have owned a potted orange tree?

Deborah Metzger  21:23
So, likely someone with social standing in Europe or in the colonies. For several centuries, oranges were grown almost exclusively by royalty and aristocracy. And that was because they were hard to maintain and hard to get hold of. They were luxury items that no one else could afford. However, in the late 17th century, and throughout the 18th century, more and more exotic plants were introduced and became accessible to the rising merchant classes in Europe, and in the New World, through botanical books and magazines, but it was as trade was going around the world and botany was very much as you mentioned, at the beginning part of this period, and was driving many of the economies both in in new things being described and becoming more available. In fact, in the exhibition, Florals: Desire and Design at the ROM just to give a little bit of a plug here, we have we have explored the link between this golden age of botany and botanical illustration where they were using illustrations to describe the new plants that were coming in and being classified and the rising popularity of plants and floral motif. So, gardening, this was a real craze at the time. Kitchen gardens, conservatories and orangeries were added to homes and gardens, and exotics--and by 'exotic' in botanical terms, I meaning a plant that is from somewhere else, not one that is native to the region--they became available in nurseries. And this is evidenced by a series of botanical paintings, the Twelve Months of Flowers that was actually a novel catalog, an innovative nursery catalog, published by Robert Ferber in England in 1730. And one of the Months included orange flowers in the painting so we know that they were around. There are also many reports at this time of people using oranges and orange scented water in cooking, but it was definitely still a luxury item in keeping with the rest of the portrait.

Adam Levine  23:56
Okay, so we've covered a lot of ground in terms of the scientific identity of the sprig and the plant material, and the history of the of the plant and its geographic reach in different periods. But the plant in the painting reads as a symbol or a sign of something. Do you have any guesses as to what the orange blossom might represent?

Deborah Metzger  24:19
Orange blossoms were a symbol of purity, innocence and chastity across many cultures and time periods from China and the West. They were often associated with brides and that became even more so later in the Victorian era and moving forward. Orange Blossom was also the official symbol of the Royal House of Orange Nassau. Beginning in the 17th century, orange blossoms and other portraits from the 17th century had been thought to link the subject to the House of Orange, the Royal House of the Netherlands. This seems less so for this painting because there are no orange fruit in the picture as many of them had. But it's still a possibility.

Monique Johnson  25:07
It's interesting that you say this because we don't want to kind of preemptively declare this with any certainty...our research into it is really ongoing, but we currently think that the portrait was very likely painted in Amsterdam, by a Dutch artist named Jeremiah Schultz. We found two comparable portraits and Deventer in the Netherlands that are currently attributed to this artist. So in terms of the House of Orange, I'm thinking, for example, of the late 17th century portrait of William, Prince of Orange as a child, and he is picking, as you say, oranges,in a kind of multitude off of a potted orange tree. And this returns us to an earlier point, this curiousness that there are no fruit or blossoms even on the tree. I think it's a distinctive property of orange trees, and correct me if I'm wrong, that the blossoms bloom alongside the fruit on the tree.

Deborah Metzger  26:12
That's correct.

Monique Johnson  26:13
So where is the fruit? And where are the other blossoms? This kind of begs the question as to whether or not this is a further symbolism, perhaps emphasizing maybe the innocence or chastity of the figure, perhaps more than the fertility that might be associated with the fruit itself. This also might be in keeping with the kind of presumed younger age of the sitter.

Deborah Metzger  26:44
Yeah, and as I have thought about this, it's also interesting that what we do get on the tree itself is actually something in bud, it's it's not even out in flower. So we've we've got sort of this illusion of something about to come. And then we've got this very distinctive blossom in their hand. Of course, going into extreme symbolism takes me a little bit away from my botanical roots. But I agree with you, and it's very distinct, that they're, they're showing this as a blossom, they're showing this as something. And if we think of orange blossoms, as also being something where the fragrance was very important, that may also have some symbolism to it, it's making her even more desirable in some ways.

Monique Johnson  27:39
Evoking this sense of smell as well as touch and sight. So you also explicitly referred to oranges as 'exotics'. And you explain the kind of botanical definition of the exotic plant just a moment ago. We spoke of how we can't quite yet narrow down a location for our subject, given the ubiquity of oranges across the globe, even though we now suspect Amsterdam to be the likely place of production. So when Adam spoke with Dr. Charmaine Nelson, they compared this portrait to two portraits painted within a decade of this work, of Black women whose lives we know a little bit more about: Francois Malepart de Beaucourt's portrait of a Haitian Woman, identified through Dr. Nelson's scholarship as most likely representing Marie-Therese Zemire, who was enslaved by the artist's wife, and David Martin's double portrait of Dido Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray. So both of these portraits feature fruit: Malepart de Beaucourt's sitter holds a bowl of fruit, as does Dido Bell in Martin's portrait, whereas the white sitter, her companion Lady Elizabeth Murray holds a book. So in the context of those two portraits, the fruit seems to be placed there by the artists to emphasize the 'exoticism' of their sitters. I'm wondering if you think the orange blossom and tree serve any similar purpose in this portrait.

Deborah Metzger  29:14
I think the first thing to note and it comes out in Adam's discussion with Dr. Nelson is that this painting is very different than the other two. Considering them and having looked at them from my botanical rather than an art historical perspective, the Portrait of a Haitian Woman depicts the woman in a tropical setting and native dress including the seed necklace that adorns her neck which was something that I as a botanist, and the custodian of a seed necklace collection picked up on right away. The fruits that she carries are fruits that are associated with tropical climates and are consistent with the seeming context of the painting. Interesting: pineapples, and she holds in her hand a tray of which pineapple is the largest fruit, were very fashionable in the early 18th century, and were used widely in many different decorative arts. And my research has recently uncovered that, you know, they were seen as a symbol of human's command over nature. And they were first cultivated in Europe, interestingly, in the Netherlands. In the second painting, the portrait of Dido, when I consider just the fruits themselves, I can see that they're European.  They're not exotic in the same way. So they would have been more familiar with grapes, apples and boughs of branches, rather than being exotic, in my definition of exotic: coming from somewhere else. However, I noted when I was listening to the episode that Dr. Nelson talks about, often black women being portrayed with things in nature, and that being something, so, that would certainly be consistent with that. When we look at this painting, even though the oranges are technically exotic fruits in Europe, meaning that they came from elsewhere, I don't think of them or their flowers is particularly representing exoticism. As we've discussed, I think they are much more a symbol of luxury. And they were something that was a symbol of wealth. And this is a time in your conversation with Alexandra Palmer, she talks about this being the period of Enlightenment and refers to the sheen on the dress and other things. And of course, the interest in plants. This was all part of the scientific curiosity that was going on at the time. And plants and flowers and other things became a symbol of social standing. So this sort of thing, having an orange blossom in a potted tree, that is obviously one that was in some kind of purposeful garden setting, would again have added to this notion  that has come up about other parts of this painting, of it being a symbol of luxury. And so I sort of feel that that kind of overrides the exoticism aspect of it? That we're really symbolizing wealth.

Monique Johnson  32:50
And as you say, as we've kind of discussed, there is no fruit, right? So it's, by contrast to the other two paintings. Here we have the blossom explicitly with our kind of conjectured symbolism of reading about kind of chastity and innocence versus the kind of fertility that we might see associated with with other portraits.

Deborah Metzger  33:20
That's absolutely correct. I think the fact that we only have the orange blossom in this case has to have been very deliberate.

Monique Johnson  33:31
And indeed, as you say, no further blossoms on the potted tree. So it's as though it's the very first bloom almost, but she has plucked off and is showing to us.

Deborah Metzger  33:45
Yeah, and and also the fact that the tree is, as I say, much darker in the background, it's, it's there, it's part of the painting, but she and the blossom are really what's front and centre. So it becomes a prop of a different sort, in the background, but definitely, by the way it's planted, puts it in a context and I think that's the same with the obelisk and things in the background, which you have suggested, you know, may be part of of a garden setting or something that we would have in Europe at the time. So the whole thing points to it being something that is very much you know, a luxury sort of garden type of setting.

Monique Johnson  34:37
Mm hmm. Yeah, I've I've shared with you and with Adam and I can maybe post a link to this prints, this is actually a Dutch print from a slightly earlier period, but where we see kind of designs for formal gardens that include these garden obelisks. In this case, it's a much more ornate obelisk than we see in our painting, but I just thought it was interesting that right beside that, the print contains two potted orange trees. So very much in keeping with the kind of desirable formal garden from around this time in the Netherlands, what's more. Well, this has all been very fascinating. And thank you so much, Deborah, for joining us and for sharing all of your botanical expertise by looking closely at what we can now with more knowledge and more certainty call Portrait of a Lady holding an Orange Blossom.

Deborah Metzger  35:37
Thank you, Monique. It's been a real pleasure to be part of this project. And as you say, it's fascinating and it shows us that there are many, many different aspects that give us many different kinds of clues and that set us into a context. So thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to join.

Monique Johnson  36:03
Absolutely. Thank you again.

Jeremias Schultz, artist, and Joseph Pierre, collector

Jeremias Schultz, artist, and Joseph Pierre, collector

Adam Levine and Monique Johnson reflect on one year of studying the painting and share new, major discoveries: they have identified the painting’s maker, the likely location of the painting, and other works by the same artist. They’ve also uncovered new details about the painting’s provenance and the life it lived before it came to Toronto.

Transcripts for Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Blossom - Jeremias Schultz, and Joseph Pierre

Text transcript for this audio track

Jeremias Schultz, and Joseph Pierre

Adam Levine 0:00 
Hi, everyone. Welcome back. I'm Adam Levine, assistant curator of European art at the Art Gallery of Ontario and I am pleased to be joined by friend of the AGO Dr. Monique Johnson, for our latest episode of a Portrait of Possibilities. I've asked Monique to come on today because this marks the year point in our research on our wonderful Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Blossom, painted in the 1770s and its arrival at the Art Gallery of Ontario. And Monique and I have worked together to ask sort of many questions of many people. So much of our project has been about considering this painting, this enigmatic and beautiful work, from many different angles and consulting experts in order to ask questions about who made this painting? when and where did they make this painting? Who is the subject? How do we sort of understand the conditions of her life based on the clothing that she's wearing, the orange blossom in her hand? And so I thought it'd be interesting after you know, a year of this work to sort of check in and say: where are we what have we learned and how has our understanding of the portrait and its subjects shifted in this time? And there's no one better than Dr. Monique Johnson, who has been asking great questions all along and has been conducting wonderful research. So thank you so much for joining me, Monique.

Monique Johnson 1:22 
Oh, thank you, Adam. It's nice to be back, especially in this capacity. This was such an intriguing and wonderful project that led us down these incredibly interesting research alleys, some of which we'll explore together today.

Adam Levine 1:39 
So I thought that we could sort of gradually step back in time. So rather than immersing ourselves in the 1770s right away, let's deal with the 19th and 20th centuries. Since we acquired Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Blossom. We've learned more about Joseph Pierre who previously owned the painting. Who was Pierre, and where did he keep the painting? What was his collection like? What do we know about the provenance and life of this painting before it came to the AGO?

Monique Johnson 2:08 
So Joseph Pierre, who lived from 1862 to 1936, in Indre, which is a region in central France, he's described and kind of the the scant, but you know, existent literature on him as an homme de lettre. So he's this scholar, he's an historian, and he is also a collector, obviously. So in the few photos that you can find of him online, he is this older white man with this long gray beard. He definitely fits the role of the kind of scholar that we might imagine. From his time, he lived in a chateau, a castle called the Chateau de Charon, and how to describe this castle, it's, I don't know how to describe it. It's not the Palais of Versailles, it's kind of this low key castle, or kind of a modest castle if that term applies to this in kind of an absurd way? He acquired it later in his life, and the castle itself dates, I think, to the 15th or 16th century. His father was a justice of the peace. His mother was a singer. And he was really trained since childhood in literature and in the arts. So you asked what kind of a man he was. To give you a sense of his kind of professional activities: he helped to organize local fine arts exhibitions, and he was affiliated in various capacities with regional museums, societies and cultural centres. So in 1907, he became the president of the Societé des Beaux-Arts et Arts decoratifs in Indres the region in which he lived.

Adam Levine 4:08 
So I think one question that when we were digging into Joseph Pierre, I wondered if he might have been the man who affixed the sort of numerical sticker at the top left of the painting. But I think this is pretty unlikely because we've seen other works that exited his collection that don't have similar stickers. So I assume, and I wonder what you think, that in all likelihood, the painting came into his collection with the sticker already applied.

Monique Johnson 4:37 
I definitely think that's quite likely. As you said, we have these catalogues of the works that were in his collections upon his death, and none of those works have the same kind of inventory stamp and to you know, my kind of amateurish knowledge in the realm of inventory stamps---I'm not trained in this--but I think it probably predates his lifetime. I'm not sure if you would, I think you spoke to people about the possible numerical script and whether or not that dates potentially from the 18th century when the painting was made or from a later period.

Adam Levine 5:18 
Yeah, I definitely think it's likely that, and we'll get a bit to like the conditions of the making of the painting, but I think it's probably like a sort of intermediary owner, between the first the commissioner of this portrait, and Pierre, that probably affixes the sticker. I think one reason that I sort of, I've grown to really admire Pierre is that he doesn't remove the sticker. So I'm so grateful to him for leaving this piece of information. We're no closer, I think, to really understanding what the number means. But you know, he clearly is a very learned man and his restraint by refraining from having a conservator remove the number demonstrates to me that he understood that it could one day be very valuable to the understanding of the painting. And so so I thank Joseph Pierre for that.

Monique Johnson 6:13 
Yeah, I think you're right. I think he's someone who was completely aware that this is valuable. It bears a trace of ownership, unfortunately, we don't know to where, but he preserved it. And that's fitting with his life as someone who's interested in history, arts and culture from his region and its past.

Adam Levine 6:36 
So to shift gears a bit, let's turn our attention to the signature, which I think, like the number label, has raised questions in the past. But now I think we're a little bit more confident. The painting is signed by a J. Schult, and we've had a few ideas in the past about who the artist is, but I think now we're much more confident. Who was J. Schult?

Monique Johnson 7:03 
Yeah, so when the AGO acquired the work, it was noted that there was this inscription with the signature that read 'J. Schult fecit', so 'Made by J. Schult'. But this is, as we've noted, obscured in the painting's present state. So what this suggested in terms of the name is an artist of German, of Dutch, or of Flemish descent. But in our kind of preliminary research, there were no obvious matches for who this might be. In this kind of journey, in which we received input from the public and from scholars and other curators, we came across, we were made aware of this portrait of a woman named Rebecca Steele, who is from New Timber Sussex, in the UK. I'm just bringing it up here in case you can see it. And we can also link to it below this episode. That was auctioned fairly recently. So this particular portrait is signed J. Schultz, pinxit. And it shows an older white woman in a blue dress, and she's wearing a double stranded pearl necklace. So looking at it, there are definitely some similarities between this portrait and our painting, and the most compelling, of course, being the similarity in the signature. But I think you'll agree, Adam, that in looking at this portrait, it seems to be by an artist of less talent than our portrait?

Adam Levine 8:46 
It's interesting, because the semi-transparent double string of pearls is a really compelling link. But beyond that, I don't, I don't see it. And I think even more interestingly, this signature is on the reverse of the painting prior to lining so we don't know. This painting was useful, I think, in our in our process, because it It brought us further along. And it did raise this interesting question: was our artist active in England?

Monique Johnson 9:27 
So at auction--I think we can agree that this is not by the same hand. I think most people looking at these paintings would come to that conclusion--but curiously at auction this work was attributed to a specific artist and this is where it kind of helps us along our journey of attribution. The artist was a Dutch artist named Johan Christoffel Schultz who lived from 1749 to 1812. So, J.C. Schultz, Johann Christoffel Schultz was a printmaker of some prominence in the Netherlands in the the 18th century, the late 18th century. He produced engravings for an eight-volume description of the towns and villages of Holland. He also produce these allegorical scenes, architectural images, procession scenes, and some printed portraits, including a self portrait. So it seemed to us and we discussed this together, somewhat unlikely, although possible that this artist working so actively in the print medium would also have this kind of side business of creating these large painted portraits. So then, in researching Johan Christoffel Schultz a little further, we discovered a very intriguing pair of portraits that are located in Deventer in the Netherlands. Deventer of city just east of Amsterdam. We will link to these as well, that are QUITE comparable to the Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Blossom.

Adam Levine 11:22 
Yeah, things really opened up when we found these paintings, I think. This really... suddenly I was confident that we had found a body of work by the same painter. The first painting had sort of been something of a red herring. But it was so helpful because the auction house did identify the artist by name. It really set us on this path. But yeah, as soon as we saw the Deventer pair of portraits, it I think we had really found our artist.

Monique Johnson 11:56 
Yeah, so we can describe them. And when we link to them, you'll see that they're a pair of portraits of a husband and wife. The wife wears, again, a double stranded pearl necklace. She has this elaborate dress and lace. By contrast to our portrait, they are pictured inside, they have some kind of writing accoutrements, in the case of the portrait of the man. I think when looking at their hands, in particular, the kind of handling of the hands seems very similar to our portrait. We haven't seen these in person, so that complicates things, but just looking at these digital images, I think the case could be made that we're looking at quite similar, if not, that's the very same artist.

Adam Levine 12:47 
And I think, really excitingly, we have a date of 1781, which closely conforms to our expectations based on our episode on dress that our painting is made in the mid 1770s. So the proximity in time and the visual similarities and similarities in period of dress, all of this really helps us to sort of look closely at the time and I think also at a place within society. Sorry, go ahead.

Monique Johnson 13:17 
No, so I was going to say in terms of this trail that were tracing, the research trail, what we did next was that we contacted the museum and the curator at Deventer, and they let us know that although they were attributed to Johann Christoffel Schultz on their website, they had since been, this pair, had since been re attributed to Schultz's uncle, a man by the name of Jeremias Scultz. So this kind of let us think, okay, we didn't think that the printmaker would be producing these portraits. Now, this museum now thinks that it's in fact, the work of the uncle. And the way they came to this determination is pretty rock solid in terms of evidence. This is based on the fact that the signature--they're both signed the portrait of the husband and wife--but the portrait of the wife reads in full, Jeremias Schultz. So have you know, the full name of the artist in that case.

Adam Levine 14:26 
What do we what do we know about this new figure now that we've gone from Johannes Christoffel, Schultz to Jeremias? What survives in the archives about Jeremias?

Monique Johnson 14:39 
So I have to say that in terms of receiving so much help from the public, in the case of the biography of Jeremias Schultz, I would really like to thank Erick Heideman in Haarlem, who very generously shared his research on this artist with us, and he was actually the independent scholar who helped Deventer to identify the artist of their pair of portraits being by Jeremias Schultz

Adam Levine 15:07 
This is such a great moment to acknowledge that so much of this project has been dependent on so many different people generously sharing their perspectives. And I think the final result is that we have this really nuanced understanding of the painting that could never have come from one mind.

Monique Johnson 15:26 
Absolutely. And it was especially nice to have that kind of collaborative effort during the time of COVID when we were all separate, you know, but alone, but together.

Adam Levine 15:38 
Yeah. So what did he tell us?

Monique Johnson 15:40 
So he told us that Jeremias Scultz, was born in 1722, or 1723, probably in Berlin, in fact. So there are records that his brother came from Berlin when Jeremias acted as a witness at his wedding at his brother's wedding, that is. Jeremias was married twice, his first wife died quite young, and he then remarried. He worked in a luxury wallpaper studio in Amsterdam, from 1759 until 1762, or thereabouts. And this is kind of a studio that designed hand painted wallpaper for wealthy homeowners. And to give you a sense of the status of such material culture, the Rijksmuseum actually holds examples of their work. So if we look at the pair, from Deventer, we noted that there is actually a date of 1781 on the portrait of the man. So this is, you know, six years later than the AGO's, six or so years later than the AGO's portrait. And these sitters are in fact named, which is actually very interesting, in light of the, we'll get to this, but the unknown identity of our sitter. So we know that there are portraits of Christian Schlichtenbree, and his wife Ana Helena Zegerius. They are both citizens of Deventer, and Christian was a merchant as well as a Protestant clergyman.

Adam Levine 17:25 
So that's interesting also, because we've been thinking so much about the moment when our painting is made, as you know, the nations of Europe as as imperial superpowers that engage in in trade with different cities across the world. And thinking about sort of the different constellation of events that can bring different people around the world to say have a European painter, probably, you know, a white European painter painting a woman of colour. So even knowing that Christiaan Schlichtenbree is a merchant that is sort of plays a role in this network, and that Schultz is painting him. I think that's very interesting and sort of helps to sort of start to construct a bit of the world that Schultz is painting in.

Monique Johnson 18:22 
Absolutely. And then we came across the third, which ties into what you're saying about the world that that Schultz painted in. This third portrait, which is somewhat tenuously, but we think, perhaps should be more concretely attributed to Jeremias Schultz, which is a portrait of an Armenian merchant living in Amsterdam, which also bears a date, in this case, 1769.

Adam Levine 18:57 
So this painting is today in the Museum of the Armenian monks of San Lazzaro in Venice, which is really a remarkable place. The Armenian....

Monique Johnson 19:09 
Which you have been to, correct??

Adam Levine 19:09 
Yes! I have been to the Armenian monastery! You have to take a special vaporetto, or the waterbus, in Venice to get to the Island of the Armenians. It is known for its really privileged collection of Armenian medieval manuscripts. And it had a special... the monks had a special relationship with Lord Byron. So there's a fantastic portrait of Byron in the monastery, an ancient Egyptian pharaoh's sarcophagus, the collection is just really varied. And so I'm, well, I'm kicking myself, in hindsight, when I was there three years ago that I didn't notice this portrait. There were so many dazzling things on the wall and in the vaults of this monastery that I'm not surprised that I missed it, and I'm really excited to go back. And I think one thing that's really key to understanding, while we don't know the name of this, this gentleman we do know is that he comes from Armenia and Armenians in the 18th century were tremendously influential figures in Europe's mercantile industries, active in trading and working as merchants in major cities all around the world, in both Amsterdam and of course, in Venice. So again, just like Christian Schlichtenbree, we have another figure that's involved in global trade routes and sort of the Netherlands' position as an imperial superpower in the late 18th century. So I think it's it's so interesting now that we're really starting to see that many of the subjects of Schultz's portraits fit into this cosmopolitan society in the Netherlands that's living in in a small country that sits at the center of a much larger global phenomenon.

Monique Johnson 21:10 
Yeah, and in terms of Armenian merchants and their trades, I just have a couple, you know, research notes: that in the 16th century, they're recorded as trading in pearls and diamonds, quite notably in Amsterdam. And later, silk really becomes the primary good traded by Armenians. And they're actually said to have controlled the Dutch silk trade until the mid 18th century. And also a note that there were around 500 Armenians living in Amsterdam in the 18th century. So we have, you know, quite accurate information, or at least specific, if not accurate information.

Adam Levine 21:57 
Well, I think that even lets us look at some of the clothing in the Schultz portraits with new perspective, right, about the the paths that brought the silk to, to Amsterdam, and to Deventer.

Monique Johnson 22:10 
Yeah, silk, pearls, diamonds, these very predominant features in our portraits as well.

Adam Levine 22:16 
Fascinating. And so, one question that I have now, of course, is thinking about Schultz, and what we've learned about him, Jeremias Schultz specifically, did he ever leave the Netherlands? And if not, then what does that mean for our sitter and the world that she lived in?

Monique Johnson 22:40 
So as far as we know, Jeremias Schultz was based in the Netherlands, and didn't leave, although he may have come from Germany. So the portrait, our portrait, Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Nlossom was very likely painted in Amsterdam, or in a town nearby, as was the case with a Deventer pair. So the frustrating thing, of course, is that we do not have any further record of our sitter's name as we do for the Deventer pair. And even knowing, kind of, the occupation or the fact that we have an Armenian merchant in the other portrait. But as you say, it's so interesting to think that the two other extant works, the pair and the single portrait of the merchant, are all within this mercantile community. So that kind of, you know, begs the question as to whether or not the woman in our portrait was the daughter of a merchant family? Is she, as well, kind of involved in this mercantile class somehow?

Adam Levine 24:01 
And I think it's extremely helpful to narrow the geography of our scope as we think about researching the painting because, you know, I've had a few colleagues look at the obelisk or fountain in the backdrop of our painting and say, you know, that must be identifiable. Like that, you know, I'm sure that if you look at enough print material, or enough maps, or other paintings from this period, that that one day someone will be able to match that piece of architecture to something that is known. And I think that when we narrow our scope to Amsterdam, Deventer, anything sort of within a day's ride of Amsterdam, in the 1770s, we may yet be able to identify that architecture and really situate our sitter within an actual square or public space in the world. And so I think even with that, we are starting to really narrow our scope with it.

Monique Johnson 25:04 
Yeah. I think I discussed this with Deborah Metzger when we looked at the prange blossom. And there are definitely kind of fountain or garden obelisks that that resemble this. But yeah, that's right that at some point, it kind of begs the question about these historical erasures, the fact that we don't have this name, what can we find out in the future now knowing that we have this likely up a geographical point from which to start from? So when it's possible, and we can dig into the archives, what can we find out about other communities of merchants perhaps, or even where to start, in terms of attempting to learn more about the life that this woman lived?

Adam Levine 25:57 
Do you think that the orange blossom has any special significance in Dutch culture in the 1770s? As opposed to France or England?

Monique Johnson 26:06 
Well, absolutely, since William of Orange, and, you know, the Netherlands is, is linked to the symbolism of the orange blossom and the color orange. So we have certainly in you know, royal family portraits, children from the Dutch royal family holding orange blossoms. So there is that's completely a possibility that this is referencing someone who is in the Netherlands, holding this this symbol that represents the Netherlands itself. But that that is ultimately speculation at this point.

Adam Levine 26:50 
Yeah, I think that's exciting, though, that there's sort of this like, potential gesture of nationalism. Obviously, it's like a multivalent sign. It stands for a lot of things: youth and fidelity, and so many other things that we've discussed in the past, but thinking about her in Amsterdam holding the orange blossom, I think, it only opens more exciting questions. Yeah, so finally, one of Jeremias Schultz's paintings closely resembles ours. And so I wondered, what can you tell us about this painting? And how does it fit into our broader understanding of Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Blossom?

Monique Johnson 27:31 
Yeah, so we haven't addressed this yet. But this has been pointed out to us by members of the public. And of course, we discovered this through our research as well, that there's this really intriguing part of this puzzle. We know of a portrait that is signed J Shultz pinxit, that sold at auction in 1999, and again, in 2011. And so this is a portrait of a young man in an elegant green jacket. And like our sitter, he is pictured outside, and he's holding an ornate cane or kind of walking stick. The dimensions of this portrait are nearly identical to our portrait, ours is just ever so slightly narrower. And we will link to this as well. But Adam looking at this portrait, I mean, what can we say about this sitter? He looks almost related to the figure in our portrait. So the question, it begs the question, are they siblings potentially?

Adam Levine 28:43 
Well I think right away, I would say that, you know that the paintings are in different states of condition. So it's interesting that the portrait of a man was sold as wearing a green jacket. I think he has a yellowed varnish layer over top, I wouldn't be surprised if he's actually wearing a blue jacket, and iff it wasn't the same blue as our Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Nlossom. Like how the pair in Deventer were wearing clothing made from the same fabric or similar matching colors, I wouldn't be surprised if these portraits were made together, commissioned together. They could be siblings, this could be a young couple that is married. That would allow us to sort of see the orange blossom that the young thus bride is holding as a symbol of her fidelity to her husband. They could also be siblings. You know, I think that the age of our sitter has always been a question. She's arguably either a girl or a young woman? Thinking you know, within the context of what age at, you know, in the 1770s, someone leaves childhood and enters adulthood. So is she old enough to have just been married? And I find this just like, so fascinating trying to parse it out. In terms of the difference of size, you know, both paintings are 80 centimetres high, ours is a few centimetres more narrow. We'll work with our colleagues in Conservation to see if there's any evidence of tearing or cutting along the sides of the painting, if it was ever made more narrow over time. That is something that happens occasionally: that a painting is adjustHed by later collectors by folding over sides of the canvas or cutting it down to resize it. hat's just it really, it raises many questions. But I think what's what's really fascinating is that it means that our subject wasn't alone in whatever world she was in, in the moment of this painting. You know, I know that's a silly thing to say, on some level, but, you know, I've tried to approach her with empathy and patience throughout this process, you know, she may not ever decide to reveal her identity to us. But I think, you know, when I, when I see such a young woman and a young woman of colour in the Netherlands in the 1770s, I have no idea what her life might have been like. You know, I am excited to turn to scholars that work with archival information and study the lives of people of colour in the Netherlands in this time period to understand what were the potential social conditions of her life? But it does seem slightly less lonely, knowing that she had someone else that that went through a similar experience of posing for a painting wearing these clothes standing, you know, the both paintings are set outdoors... There's something kind of comforting about knowing that, that this painting is is not totally alone in the world.

Monique Johnson 32:14 
Yeah, that's really beautifully said. And we kind of think of them informally--we don't know this for sure--as pendants. So as a kind of, you know, paired partner to our work this work may well have been that. And looking at them there, they look as well to be-- this is getting into the realm of connoisseurship--but by the same hand, and they bear the same signature. So this is quite likely, in fact/

Adam Levine 32:49 
It's interesting, I mean, the handling of the background is totally different.

Monique Johnson 32:54 
That's true, that's very true.

Adam Levine 32:56 
Our subject stands in a sort of courtyard next to the potted orange. And there are buildings that retreat with, you know, sort of linear perspective behind, whereas the, her male counterpart is, it's kind of hard to understand the landscape that he's in. There are many trees behind him, but it almost appears like he's standing on top of a bluff because the trees really retreat very low to the back of the canvas behind. I'd love to see this painting in person, you know, I've just, I would really... I hope I get to see it one day, and we get to study it together. And sort of, you know, I wonder, are there urban elements to the background? Can we see a cityscape anywhere? Or is this just the sort of open, expansive forests that he's standing in front of? And, and what does that mean for him? And sort of compare the two spaces that these figures occupy? How do we read them differently in in their context?

Monique Johnson 34:00 
Yeah, because even though she's outdoors, we can see the sky, she does feel somewhat enclosed. Whereas the, the landscape behind him suggests that's a different kind of openness.

Adam Levine 34:15 
So it's really exciting to me that, you know, we've had this opportunity to, a year out, recap what we've learned and where we've sort of arrived in our understanding of the painting and we now know that our our Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Blossom was painted in the mid 1770s by Jeremias Schultz, an artists likely born in Berlin and, you know, a migrant to the Netherlands, where he establishes a career painting not only wallpaper, but also portraits of members of the merchant class of society in Amsterdam, and other cities in the environs of Amsterdam, in the 1700s, late 1760s 1770s, through the 1780s. And, we've even learned a little bit about the life that our painting has had subsequent to its creation, and its move to France before it came to Toronto. So I think that, you know, I'll just be candid, I had very low hopes for our research. When we started a year ago, you know, I was always constantly a little bit nervous that this painting would remain a mystery in many ways, but, we've discovered so much more than I think we ever could have hoped for. So I just, I thank you so much, because it's been so much fun to work with you and so much fun to work with our generous colleagues around the world who have lent time and resources and knowledge and kindness. You know, it's just been it's been such a wonderful project. So I thank you very much.

Monique Johnson 36:04 
Oh, I thank you. It's a great gift to work on, and I think one that will keep on giving as well. I just, I think of impart the kind of weight this woman carries. And what we're asking her to do is a lot. And even, you know, she sits in the gallery and I just wanted to recall this poem that was written by Chantal Gibson, who's a Canadian poet and artist, who wrote a poem in response to another work in the collection by Yvonne McKague Housser, which is this portrait of a black woman model thought to be named Veronica. And I won't read the poem in full, but she asks, she says, "What's it like at the center of the AGO... knowing you've been placed here by kinder hands, to reconcile the past to challenge the climate of the centre... I'm a sign of the times, still, no one knows my name. What's it like?" And I do wish we could ask this woman as well, what is it like? But, I think the potential stories that emerge through this research are very much necessary to expand the stories that we can tell about European art as well.

Adam Levine 37:33 
Thank you so much, and listeners, stay tuned, watch this space, I can only hope that we'll keep on learning and keep on sharing our discoveries with you. Thanks again.

Monique Johnson 37:43 
Thank you.

Looking for our subject in Amsterdam of the 1700s

Looking for our subject in Amsterdam of the 1700s

Having identified the artist, location, and time period of the portrait, we turn our attention to Amsterdam’s archives to better understand the different lives people of colour lived in the Netherlands in the late 1700s. Adam Levine interviews Mark Ponte, a historian and archivist who specializes in Amsterdam’s historic Black communities, to learn more about who the painting might depict, and what her life might have been like.

Transcripts for Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Blossom - Looking for our subject in Amsterdam of the 1700s

Text transcript for this audio track

Looking for our subject in Amsterdam of the 1700s

Adam Levine  0:00 
Hello, I'm Adam Levine, assistant curator of European art at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Welcome back to our web series, A Portrait of Possibilities, where we share our collaborative research on the AGO's remarkable painting Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Blossom. In our last episode, we shared the exciting news that we have identified the painter of our portrait: Jeremias Schultz, born in the early 1720s maintained a successful career as a portrait painter in Amsterdam and its surrounding towns until his death in 1800. In an earlier episode, we learned from costume historians that our painting was made in the first half of the 1770s. So now we're excited to put these data points together and really focus our research on Amsterdam in the 1770s. I wanted to learn more about the city and the people who live there. So I reached out to Mark Ponte , an archivist and scholar Mark Ponte is a historian working on early modern migration and slavery with a focus on Amsterdam. He works at the Amsterdam City Archives and as a research fellow at the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague. In recent years, he has mainly published on Black Amsterdammers in the 17th century, he conducted research for the exhibition 'Here: Black in Rembrandt's Time' in the Rembrandthuis Museum, and curated the exhibition 'Amsterdammers and Slavery' in the City Archives. He regularly write for contributions to public historical books and magazines. Mark, thank you so much for joining us today. To begin, I wonder if you can set the scene for us and tell us about what Amsterdam was like in the later 1700s? How many people lived in the city? Was the population very international? Was it multiracial? How did class and race intersect at this time in the city?

Mark Ponte  1:37 
First of all, thank you for this invitation. And very nice to talk to you about all these, well, about this very special painting that you have in the collection. If we look at Amsterdam in the late 18th century, although it was not as booming as it was in the 17th century, in the late 18th century, Amsterdam was still a very busy port city with around 200,000 inhabitants; Amsterdammers, as we like to call ourselves. And of course, like every port city, the city was very diverse. Since the late 16th century, Amsterdam was built on migrations, some of them highly skilled, some refugees, but most of them were people from all over Europe, but especially from the neighboring countries, of course. And during the 18th century, I think hundreds of thousands of migrants arrived in the city, many of them found employment within the East India Company, private merchant ships, etc, etc. So they will just stay for a couple of weeks in Amsterdam and then travel further on so to say. And many of them were like German, Scandinavians, French, but also Italians, Greeks. Of course, there were some important and well known migrant communities also. So you could say that all of these groups like Germans, Scandinavians,  they had their own communities, but also many of them integrated quite well in into the Amsterdam society since, well, almost everyone had a migrant background, so to say. Of course, we have the two important Jewish communities: the Sephardic and Ashkenazi community, and the first group in particular, the Sephardic Jews had important contacts in the American colonies, especially in Suriname and Curacao. And there were also other, let's say, more merchant-like communities like the Armenians. And it's very interesting to know, of course, that the painter Schultz also painted an Armenian, probably in Amsterdam. And they were often also called Persians here, because a lot of them came from from actually what's now Iran. And of course, there were also people of colour from the different colonies in Amsterdam. So people with African background, Indian, Indonesian, Black sailors, but also people with a history of enslavement. You could say it was a very diverse city: people from all over Europe, and some people from even a lot far farther away.

Adam Levine  4:18 
And you mentioned the Dutch East India Company and the Dutch colonies. And I think it's so important to underscore that many people conceive of Amsterdam at this time as a major cultural and economic center for the Dutch Republic. But more importantly, and I think more critically, it was a major cultural economic center for the Dutch Empire. So can you tell us a bit about the Dutch Empire at this time: what regions around the globe were colonized as part of this empire?

Mark Ponte  4:45 
During early modern times, Amsterdam was always the economic centre of the Republic and its empire. That's true. and if we talk about round 1670s, the most important areas colonized by the Dutch were of course, in the Americas,  you had in the Guyanas,  Suriname,  Berbice, you had some islands in the Caribbean Sea, of course... Curacao. And from all these areas, people came also to Amsterdam, then you had in modern day Ghana, the trading post Elmina, of course, very important in the trafficking of enslaved Africans from from Africa to the Americas, you had, the V.O.C. (Dutch East India Company) was very active, of course, from  South Africa, to the east, with a major colony, the Cape Colony. And then there were too many trading posts in Asia, so all over Asia from Cochin and to Suratte in India, Sri Lanka, Ceylon, and of course, Batavia (now, Jakarta). So let's say, range of trading posts and colonies around the globe. All these in all these areas also, of course, services and labour was mostly based on enslaved people, both in the east and also in the West.

Adam Levine  6:12 
And so earlier, you mentioned that many people of colour were born and raised in Amsterdam in this period, but some migrated from abroad. And I'm wondering if some, you know, especially if they came from areas that had been colonized by the Dutch Empire? And can you tell us sort of a bit about the experiences of these migrants coming to Amsterdam at the time?

Mark Ponte  6:35 
Well, I think it's a bit the other way around. So there were more people migrating, then were born and raised in Amsterdam. But then again, there were, of course, always people that had lived for their whole lives in in Amsterdam, or the Dutch Republic. And well, it's hard to talk about THE migrant experience. Of course, as I said, before, there were thousands of migrants arriving every day, well not every day, but every year in Amsterdam, and every one of them in the end had his own story. Most of them would only stay for a couple of weeks before leaving again. In general, of course, most of them would live in the crowded, poorer parts of town, what we now call the Jordaan area, also Vlooienburg. So in both east and west parts of the city, there were like, migrant neighbourhoods where where people would settle, also outside others, like many of the of the migrants, or maybe we shouldn't even say migrants, many of them were of course did not make their own the choice to go to Amsterdam, so they were more or less trafficked or brought along by merchants, etc. They often worked, of course, in the houses of the rich merchanst, so in the Canal area. So you have in that way, and I think we'll talk about this more, you have different groups of migrants, so to say. If we look at it in general, for sailors, and servants and so on, it was of course, quite a very tough, tough, tough life, you had to work your your day to survive.

Adam Levine  8:18 
You know, you just raised this idea of agency, people, not necessarily having the choice to come to Amsterdam, you know. Are there are there instances of people being enslaved in households in Amsterdam in this period?

Mark Ponte  8:32 
This is also always an interesting discussion, because you had like the the formal rules, and then then the actual situation, so to say, and formally, from the early days, there was no slavery allowed in Amsterdam. So if one would say, Are there slaves, or enslaved people in Amsterdam? Well, formally, no, because in the rules of the city, it says that everyone in Amsterdam is free. But then again, truth this, that many of the colonizers so to say, and others also, that traveled from east and west to Amsterdam brought enslaved servants with them, although many of them were formally free. And also, in fact, they were freed. Others stayed for years in the household of the people that enslaved them in Africa or Asia or the Americas. So, in fact, there were forms of slavery and bondage in Amsterdam, of course. Yeah.

Adam Levine  9:38 
I think that that's such an important thing to understand that, although the legal situation may have barred enslavement, the social and economic conditions meant that there were a number of people who lived in the city in circumstances that we would now today think of as enslavement.

Mark Ponte  9:54 
Yeah. And then again, it's also true that many of them without formal manumission or something, then of course, you didn't, because of the rules, you didn't need manumission to be freed. That also makes it a bit difficult to research sometimes, because if we would have the manumissions, it would also be like a rich source. But we've seen in the archives, I've seen so many different stories of both people that are more or less enslaved, but many, many stories of people that build their own lives in Amsterdam, and also married, married here and built their own social life, so to say, in some stayed working with the people that brought with them, or decided to work somewhere else.

Adam Levine  10:40 
So, in some instances, there might have been people who came to Amsterdam, working in a household of colonizers who had been enslaved in their home country, and then found freedom and a different life in Amsterdam upon arrival, right? Is that one form of migration?

Mark Ponte  10:59 
Yes, that's one version, then you often come across, but maybe we talk about some of these sources later, of people that are actually formally freed later in their lives in in last wills, etc, etc., and then there is this whole group of these mostly men who never were enslaved and were Black sailors... so there were different groups, so to say, and there were also, let's say, the offspring of mixed relations, whatever that relation meant in the colonies. But of course, white people did get children with enslaved and free coloured people in the colonies. And some of them also ended up here in Amsterdam.

Adam Levine  11:45 
You've mentioned the sources a few times and I think that for someone who has never done archival work, or doesn't really know how archives function or what they're like, what can you tell us about the sorts of archives that survive and how you use them to understand social and cultural life in historic Amsterdam?

Mark Ponte  12:03 
I try to combine as many sources as possible, of course. So since the people I research are often in the margins of society, it's it's hard to find any archival material about them. But so, by combining a lot of sources, you can sometimes get a glimpse of their lives, so to say. The basis is often just the ordinary marriage and baptismal records. For example, I was able to map a small Black community in the mid 17th century Amsterdam, in the area where also Rembrandt, and Govert Flinck, for example, worked, they had their works, shops there. And this was, of course, also the subject of this exhibition, 'Black in Rembrandt's Time.' There, I used the marriage records, or actually the bands that gives information about well, of course, the names of the people that want to marry, but also age, occupation and the place of birth. If you wanted to marry in Amsterdam, you had to bring either your parents or a witness. And you would, of course, bring a witness, mostly a friend or somebody you know very well. Then again, also, if you get children, you bring not only the parents are noted in the archives, but also the godparents, again, close connections to the parents, and by carefully mapping all these people, including their their relations, the let's say, the godparents and other witnesses, I was able to map like a whole group of people that at some points were connected to each other. So they knew each other very well. And then these are actually the sources you would use for every genealogical research, so to say, but they can also be used to map communities.

Adam Levine  13:49 
You know, thinking about these archival records: you know, do they have the address of the person? Is that one of the ways that you're sort of able to trace how communities geographically formed in the city?

Mark Ponte  14:01 
Yeah, this is again, of course, especially the marriage registers tell us also the location that somebody was living. So that's another way of seeing, well, if everybody lives in the same street or in the same area, and they have the same background, we can assume that they knew each other. Especially if you can see this again, also in these witnessing patterns. But of course, many people, especially servants, and sailors, never married in Amsterdam or so to say. But then again, we have other sources that we can find these people in.  They are especially the notary archives, and also other wills that bequest servants or mixed-race children, but also contracts: death securities of African, Asian and Afro-Caribbean sailors. Occasionally, a Black person makes a statement about something that happened in town by for example, the statement by the Black surgeon's apprentice from New York in 1759, Jan Christiaan Pryn, a  Dutch name--old names were often Dutchified if you look in the sources, about a patient that he and his colleagues had treated. So, of course, like every other person that lives in the city, sometimes you had to go to the notary to make a statement. And then there are the sources of the colonies that tells us something about people traveling, for example from Suriname--let's say the most important West Indian colony in the in the 18th century, based largely on slavery with the sugar plantations, of course--and in Suriname, the governors kept a journal. And in this journal, almost all passengers leaving for Amsterdam are mentioned. Of course, the white passengers ,but also their enslaved passengers with them, or also free Black Surinamese that traveled to Amsterdam. If you look only in the year 1770, I found 17 Black travelers to Amsterdam. And for the whole decade, over 200,000 people of African descent traveled from Suriname to Amsterdam.

Adam Levine  16:12 
So these archive sources denote racial category?

Mark Ponte  16:16 
Yeah, especially the Dutch from the colonies, yes. They would say say whether somebody is Black or mixed-race, or if he's free or enslaved. The sources in Amsterdam are not so clear. Well, often, colour is mentioned, but they often don't see the difference between mixed-race or... And especially if you talk about the 17th century, for example, it is not mentioned: it just says that somebody is from Angola or somebody is from Cirebon or somewhere in India, etc. You can really see in the sources that the colonies are a lot more racialized than a city like Amsterdam is, where people are not so used... Then again, if you look at, for example, another very important sources to is the church records, so the baptisms of like, not of the children that are born in Amsterdam, but people that are baptized later in their lives, and they would, of course, get some religious education, so to say, and in these kinds of church records of the Dutch Reformed Church, but also other churches, the Lutherans, they would often note that somebody is Black from Suriname, or some, they had different different names, for instance, at say, 'Black' or 'Moor'. So this is a very rich source also on how people perceived people of colour in Amsterdam, and also, where did these people come from, yeah.

Adam Levine  17:50 
I think it's really fascinating and important to kind of think about the ways that different societies within the Dutch Empire impose different racial hierarchies, right? And so thinking about the fact that in in the colonies, there are sort of more complex terminologies and thinking about how people are sort of sorted into categories based on their so-called like, racial makeup. And the fact that this, in some instances is a bit looser in Amsterdam, or sort of like thinking about where race enters or doesn't enter in the archive in Amsterdam is kind of fascinating to hear about.

Mark Ponte  18:31 
And it's also very, it's also very interesting to see that of course, the white people so to say, that come from the colonies, they bring the categories from the colonies with them. So, different sources have different ways of looking at colour, at race. There are some examples where, for example, in the last will, if you talk about freedom and slavery that people are mentioned, as 'my servant', or 'my slave', or, the word slave is scratched through, and then changed into servant or they often talk about 'gewezen slavin', former enslaved. I don't think this answers your last question?

Adam Levine  19:11 
No, no, I think that that really does. And, I was also struck by... you mentioned that in some instances for your research, it doesn't necessarily use racial categories, but does state a country of origin or region origin. And I think, you know, critically, that's very different from race.

Mark Ponte  19:29 
Yeah. And the interesting thing is, of course, it doesn't say a thing about if somebody in the seventeenth century says that he's born in Angola, and that he's a sailor, and he marries someone in Amsterdam, that's from Brazil, I assume that this man is a Black Angolan. But of course, if it's not mentioned, you never know for sure how somebody looked or how people looked at them, and that's why I use, because I'm a historian, but I work a lot with artworks from the period as well also to get an idea how people actually looked. And of course, it's hard to tell who is who in a painting. But still, I think it is very important to combine all the sources, including artworks.

Adam Levine  20:19 
Well, I think it's a great time to turn to our painting, then. Thinking about the Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Blossom at the Art Gallery of Ontario, so much of this project has been trying to learn more about the identity of this woman. We've found many different ways to sort of get closer and closer to understanding who she is. We can sort of approximate her age and the fact that she is a young woman in the 1770s, and that she's in Amsterdam, or a surrounding town. But we still don't know her name, and we don't really know what her life would have been like. But I wonder if your knowledge of the archives, and some different episodes that arise in the archives, that live within the archives, can help us to think about not her, but think about what some different lives of young women of colour in Amsterdam might have been like at this time. And if that is, sort of, another way that we can start to kind of approximate thinking about the life of the woman in this painting. So does that make sense from your perspective, as a historian that dwells in the archives, looks at the archives? And what can you tell us, thinking about the sources?

Mark Ponte  21:31 
Yes. So of course, first of all, in the preparation of this talk, I of course, I tried to look for clues if I could find something that could connect really somebody in the archives with the woman on the painting, or the girl, the young woman, the girl. But this, of course, is a very difficult, almost impossible task. But if we look at the lives, more generally, of young women of colour in the 1760s, 1770s, I think, well, there's a lot of source material that you could use, and also think we can divide the people in, well, we talked about this a little bit before, in different social categories. And it could also be useful to analyze what we see in the painting.

Adam Levine  22:19 

Mark Ponte  22:19 
So the vast majority, of course, of the women of colour and girls of colour, were brought to Amsterdam, accompanying retired officials from the East India Company or plantation owners from Suriname or in the West. Some of them were small children when they arrived. For example, I wrote about the story, Christina van der Geugten, from Batavia, so modern-day Jakarta, who arrived in Amsterdam in 1766. No, no, she arrived in the 1750s, but she turns up for the first time in the archives in 1766, when she's 18 years old, and she's locked up in the city spinning house, where women that were disobedient, so to say, were locked up-- a working house. And we know a lot about her because she was interrogated at that time. And she tells a lot about her life, so to say, and she was one of these children that was born in the household of a V.O.C. merchant in Batavia. And as a five year old, she was separated from her mother. Her mother was an enslaved woman in the house, brought by this family to the Dutch Republic, while her mother remained in Batavia. And as a teenager, Christina was sent away to work as a domestic servant outside the city. We don't know whether this was the idea of this family from the start, that they will bring this young girl to serve later on. But that was the situation when she was 18. And she refused all the time to start working somewhere else. And then she returned to Amsterdam. And in the 1760s, early 70s the conflict really escalated and she broke the windows of the house of the of the merchant, so to say. And because she was interrogated, of course we can know a little bit about your story. And I think her story stands for from many other women of colour at this time in Amsterdam: they were brought as children. Some of them were even left out on the streets, ended up in orphanages, others stayed in the house but had to work there. But then again, they were of course also girls and women that were a lot better off. Some of them married in the city or remained in houses paid paid servants or went to other houses of their own choice. I came across a very interesting example last week or a couple of weeks ago Ana Maria from Cirebon, and she was also 13 years old when she arrived in Amsterdam in the 1760s or so.  Ana Maria from Cirebon was 13 year old years old when she arrived in 1761 in Amsterdam, an during her lifetime here she worked in different households. She was not rich, but she earned a decent amount of money and she also she inherited a little bit from the people that brought her here. She made up her own will and then you can see that she had money and that she was an independent woman, 20 years later. Even between the servants you have  different stories of course. Then again, there's another group and if I look at this painting, I think this could also be an option, if you look at them, and that's what we talked about earlier. It's the children of the white fathers in the in the women of colour in in the colonies that were sent to the Dutch Republic for education. Some of them were actually rich, rich heiresses of the plantations of their part. A striking example is, for example, Willemina Balk from Dutch colony of Berbice, o next to Suriname in what's now Guyana. Willemina was the daughter of a free black woman named Katje, and the plantation owner Johann Andreas Balk and upon our father's death in 1806,  Willamina, Balk became the owner of the plantation of her father. She had arrived, it arrived in Amsterdam already in the 1780s as a very small child, and when she was older, she got education, of course, languages, etc, reading writing, also drawing lessons from Christiaan Andriessen, the son of now famous painter, Jurriaan Andriessen. We know quite a lot about about Willamina because this Christiaan Andriessen had a drawing diary for four or five years or so. And he made quite a few drawings of Willemina, who was in the same circle, so to say. She she lived at a merchant's in Amsterdam that was taking care of her, of course, a trading merchant, trader with West Indies, and the business partner of her father in Berbice. Later, she married a well-to-do man from Amsterdam, and traveled back to Berbice where she, well, she sadly died very early in childbirth. But this is another category of people. And not all of them were so well-to-do as Willamina was, there are others that were there, for example, Alida Charles, who ended up being running a bar with her Dutch husband in Amsterdam. So she, she had her own business with her husband. There are many stories also to find about groups of immigrants of colour in Amsterdam. And if I look at the painting, painted by Schultz, in a way to surprise me if this is also one of these more well-to-do offspring of maybe a white merchants. Or another option, some of them actually, some people also adopted children from Asia if when they didn't have their own. But of course, this is very speculation, there are so many, many other possibilities still of who she is. But as she's so dressed up, and she she could be one of the more well-to-do.

Adam Levine  28:23 
This is really fascinating, because early on in our conversations about this painting, we were sort of thinking about kind of well known portraits by European artists, of women of colour from the 1770s. And one of the images that came up in conversation was the portrait of Dido Belle, which is in England and Dido Belle was born to a white English nobleman, and a free Black mother, I believe in in the Caribbean. And her father sent her to be raised and educated in England and her portrait was made there. And it's a very similar circumstance, the one that you're describing, so we have been sort of thinking about this possibility for a long time. One thing I want to kind of, you know, you've talked about the Dutch East India Company, the Dutch West India Company, and I want to make sure that we're not inadvertently collapsing important differences between the lives of, say Black Africans, Black Caribbeans and East and Southeast Asians in Amsterdam, to say that, you know, all like that there's sort of a single, singular experience of people of colour in the late 18th century.

Mark Ponte  29:43 
Well, if you look at the sources, I would say, many of the white people put them all in one category, so to say. We have the same words describing the race or color of people from East and from West. The N-word is used for people from the east and the west. 'Moor' is used for people from east and west, or south, from Eastern, from people of African descent, people of Asian descent, of course. Within these categories, there are so many different people in so many different groups. But in the eyes, for example of the Dutch Reformed Church, they were all put in the same category, and they were non-white people from the colonies. For them, there was no distinction and also, in most other sources, you don't see much difference. Of course, they say 'This, this person is from Suriname', 'She's from Bali', somebody else is from Batavia, or Bengal, or... So, in a way for the general Amsterdam people, maybe they didn't make very... It starts become different, if you look closely, of course, with their own connections. So of course, for example, many people, if people marry in Amsterdam, apart from the 17th century, but in the 18th century, most of these marriages are mixed race. So whether it's the men or the females came from the colonies, they married to white people in Amsterdam. Not all of them, of course, there were always people that found somebody with a background that was more or less the same as theirs. But even then, for example, so in the 17th century, in the time when Rembrandt was active, so to say, it was very different. So then, you really had like a Black community at a certain place in time where everybody most of the people married within this community. But in the 18th century, I haven't seen these patterns and it seems like people are generally mixed and integrated in the society or stayed in the homes of the of the people that brought them in the first place. There's one interesting quote, actually, about the marriage of of Willemina Balk.  I don't know if you if you read it, because she was, of course a woman of colour, so to say. She had a Black mother and a white father. When she married in Amsterdam--and this is one of the only sources that we have that that actually says something about how people were perceived by others, by the other people in in town,  white Amsterdammers-- and then when she married in Amsterdam, she married to this Justus Swaving and Justus Swaving, well, he was a well-to-do guy, but also a bit of an adventurer also, and he he wrote down his life story later in life. And he also tells about his marriage to to Willemina and then there's this quote, and I can quote her because it's, it's a very interesting quote: and he says that when he was in the city hall, a stout Amsterdam 'fish wife', so to say, being one of the 28 mostly heavily pregnant brides, with whom we stood at the bar was unashamed enough to cry out in the middle of the solemn ceremony saying, hands on her hips and roaring with laughter, 'What is that Black blood doing in the cold?" So, there you have like the say in an ordinary Amsterdam wish wife, they call them so, this could mean somebody that's actually selling fish on the street but also it is a way, a typical rude woman, so to say, a low class woman and she did indeed say something about about this rich white guy marrying a woman of colour in the city.  Then again, we don't know this is all what Swaving wrote about it.

Adam Levine  34:09 
So yeah, Willemina's background doesn't really insulate her as she moves through the city on the street, you know, from deep-seated anti-Blackness?

Mark Ponte  34:19 
No. And if we look with the sources are interesting because we have this, this diary of this drawn diary. And in all these drawings, she's well inside the elite society, so to say, because she get drawing lessons with other girls, elite, Dutch girls, often also with fathers who are involved in colonial trading, but then white girls, and so she's really, according to this drawing, she's integrated into the elite of Amsterdam, but then again, you seewhat happened to her when she's walking on the streets and somebody looks at her face, that she's not a white Amsterdam woman.

Adam Levine  35:04 
Yeah, that sort of falls away. Really interesting to kind of think about how race and class intersect in a number of really complicated ways in in the city at this time.

Mark Ponte  35:19 
Yes. And of course, with women like Willemina, of course, if you have a lot of money, things change in a way. So you can find a rich husband sometimes, or somebody that's looking for your inheritance, actually. So there is, again, there are so many different stories to tell about these people that it's hard to say, this is the way to look. But I think, more or less these, these are the two categories of people that you... well, if we have to put a name on the sitter on the painting, and well, we cannot put a name...

Adam Levine  36:02 
Yeah no, I really appreciate that. Because this is effectively how the research process works for thinking about a painting like this, looking at the fact that the painting itself was ever made, the way that the sitter is dressed, the sort of nobility effectively of the way that she's holding this orange blossom and the way that she's treated, the fact that it's a single portrait, not a group portrait. Obviously, she's connected pretty directly with a fair amount of wealth, whether it's in her own bank account, or it's in a father's or husband's bank account at this time, or whether she is part of a household that has a tremendous amount of wealth. It's obvious that we can sort of look to specific corners of powerful wealthy society in Amsterdam at this time to try to sort of locate her.

Mark Ponte  36:54 
Yeah, also, see, if we look at the painting, of course, it's also: the setting is not Amsterdam. The setting is some rich land house outside of Amsterdam. So, well of course, only the very rich in town had this kind of land houses outside, at the Amstel River. In summer, the rich merchants would go outside. And, of course, it still doesn't tell us anything about the woman: she could be a servant, traveling with this family to the country house, or she could be a family member of, or even a lady of the house, so to say, but it gives us a clue in what circles we have to look for. She must be, whether as a member or as a servant, but she is somewhere in the very high rich circles of Amsterdam.

Adam Levine  37:47 
You have given us so much to think about today. And so much information from the archives and from your vast knowledge. So I'm so grateful to you for your time and for your insight. This has been really fascinating.

Mark Ponte  38:00 
Thank you.

Adam Levine  38:02 
Well, thank you very much. And stay tuned as we kind of work from the information that Mark has shared with us today and we continue to conduct our research and learn more about the painting. Thank you all for joining us and take care.



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