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.