As film critic Manohla Dargis notes in her review, the new movie Belle is “enough of an old-fashioned entertainment that it could have been made in classic Hollywood,” save for the fact of its main character’s race. Belle, which opened last weekend in New York and L.A. and adds cities and screens throughout this month, is based on the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of a Royal Navy officer and a black woman of uncertain status in 18th century England. The story presented by the film has much in common with an Austen novel, but with the added element of a heroine coming to terms with her race and its meaning in a slave society.
The film was inspired by a striking portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle with her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, a painting that—quite against custom—depicted no apparent subservience of its black subject to its white. The painting, the artist of which has been lost to history, features in the third volume of The Image of the Black in Western Art, our nearly complete ten book series tracing the ways that people of African descent have been represented in Western art from the ancient world to modern times.
In “Court and City: Fantasies of Domination,” an essay written by series co-editor David Bindman and Helen West, the painting is considered within the 18th century tradition of presenting black pages, grooms, and servants as status symbols for the white people who are the art’s ostensible subjects. In this case, though, and several other works that Bindman and West highlight, there’s a way of seeing the racial hierarchy as slightly undercut by a certain quality of freedom in the person of color found lacking in the white subject’s formal pageantry.
Here’re Bindman and West on the contrast drawn between the countenance and costume of Dido Elizabeth Belle and that of her cousin:
[A] relationship between liberty and formality appears in a later anonymous painting of Lady Elizabeth Murray, a niece of Lord Mansfield, the judge in the landmark Somerset case (so important in the history of abolition), who is accompanied by Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter by a black woman of Sir John Lindsay, a nephew of Mansfield. Dido seems to have had an ambiguous position in the household as both servant and family member, but in the portrait difference is emphatically signaled through skin color, dress, and demeanor. Though affection is expressed in Lady Elizabeth’s outstretched hand, her formality and bookishness is contrasted with the wild and exotically turbaned figure of Dido, whose fruits and branches and open smile make her a Caliban-like figure of untamed nature. Her position was unusual, for her parentage was evidently fully acknowledged; she was placed, like a free person of color in the West Indies, in an ambiguous position, treated with familial affection yet also evidently as a domestic servant, though Lord Mansfield left her an annual allowance on his death in 1793 and she was able to marry in the same year. In this portrait…we have come some distance from the earlier typology of such portraits, in which black servants were pets to the woman portrayed; now their “savagery” is to be envied rather than castigated.
The story told by Belle, even though padded by departures from the slim historical record of Dido, serves to remind us of the great many people presented in the thousands of works archived by The Image of the Black in Western Art, and the ways in which the series serves as a vital source in the history not just of art but of lives.