About the Portrait
The Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Blossom, acquired by the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2020, is important for its compelling portrayal of a young woman of color in the 18th century. The artist who painted it remains semi-anonymous, but was trained to paint in a European style (Levine). There is a semi-readable signature at lower left: “J Schul.. fec.” There are several possible Johann and Joachim Schulzs who appear on lists of artists for the mid-18th century, but their work does not survive, and the painting is not identifiably German (Sotheby’s).
The painting is currently dated to the mid-18th century, but a careful examination of the clothing reveals that it was probably painted around 1775. The artistic treatment of the fabric and bodice resemble portraits done in the 1750s by British artist John Wollaston while living in colonial Virginia (Fig. 1), and American artist Robert Feke’s work of around the same time. This style is rarely used beyond the 1750s, but can be found in some later paintings (Fig. 2) from less prominent artists. However, as will be discussed below, aspects of the sitter’s dress are identifiably from the 1770s, making a date of ca. 1775 fairly confident.
The sitter is also anonymous. She is a young woman, probably between 12-14 years of age, with medium-dark skin, dark brown eyes, and dark hair puffed in a fashionable style and kept under a transparent cap. Because her clothing is fine and her family wealthy enough to commission a high-quality portrait, she is clearly a free woman of color. It is not likely that she or her family were once enslaved, unless her situation was similar to that of her contemporary Dido Belle, who had an elite white father (Fig. 3) (Braimah). Her show of wealth here makes it more likely that she and her family were never enslaved, and lived as free, wealthy members of society wherever this was painted. Free Africans had settled in England since the Renaissance and married into white English families, but it was far more difficult to avoid enslavement in other countries (Kaufmann 113, 124).
She is holding an orange blossom delicately in her right hand. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has this to say of orange blossoms as symbols in American paintings:
“The white orange blossom symbolizes both marriage and purity, while the fruit [is] a sign of fertility…Orange trees, although fashionable in Europe, were expensive rarities in the colonies. The presence of one here reinforces the sitter’s wealth.” (MMA, “1729”)
There is a tree – possibly a frangipani (plumeria) – behind her at left, and an obelisk or possibly a fountain at right. Plumerias are indigenous to Central America; in Spanish Colonial culture, they were connected with the worship of the Virgin Mary (Zumbroich 341). Obelisks, fountains, and other Neoclassical structures were popular background features for paintings in the mid-eighteenth century, in the tradition of Reynolds and Zoffany; the painting in figure 4 has a Greek pediment peeking over the trees for a similar effect.
This may be a painting by a Caribbean, Central American, or South American artist attempting to mimic formal Spanish portraiture like the painting in figure 4 (Dean & Leibsohn 22). Certain aspects of dress persisted in the Americas for far longer than they were fashionable in Europe (see the 1740s winged cuffs in figure 5), and in some cases never caught on at all, which would explain the sitter’s modest hairstyle during the time in which Queen Marie Antoinette was becoming famous for foot-tall hair.
Whether or not this is a colonial painting, the young lady in the portrait is possessed of wealth, bearing, and no small amount of style.
Anonymous. Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Blossom, mid-18th century. Oil on canvas; 80 × 56.2 cm (31.5 x 22 in). Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 2019/2437. Purchase, 2020. Source: Art Gallery of Ontario
About the Fashion
If it opens in the front, her dress would simply have been called a ‘nightgown’ in the 1770s (Lewandowski 98). The petticoat and bodice are sewn together at sides and back, the front of the petticoat ties around the waist with a drawstring, and the bodice pins shut (Fig. 6). It is a fairly informal mode of dress, and was more common for a child than an adult for a formal portrait. It is also possible that, unlike most 18th-century dresses, hers fastens in the back with laces. All children wore dresses before the age of seven, and girls continued to wear back-lacing dresses until puberty (Fig. 7) (Callahan 55). This young woman may be just around that age, or this may have been painted by an artist who did not think the front closure was important enough to paint in.
The trimming on her gown is what places the style of the gown firmly in the 1770s. Notice the box-pleated sections of striped silk organza that decorate her neckline and her arms, as well as the puffed lines of trim around the center of each arm. This manner of trimming became popular in the late 1760s and continued to be used into the 1780s. The painting of Princess Sophie Friederike, ca. 1774, in figure 8 is an excellent example of this fashion. Patterned, transparent trims were all the rage in the 1770s, and it is possible that the orange-blossom girl is wearing an older gown that has been re-trimmed to be up-to-date with French styles (Chrisman-Campbell 17).
In her 2002 book What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America, Linda Baumgarten describes the fashion of the 1770s:
“[W]omen’s fashions of the 1770s and 1780s were neither sober nor practical. In addition to trimmings and flounces, gown skirts were sometimes drawn up in puffs with drawstrings or tapes…Tall hairstyles trimmed with pearls, ribbons, and padding emphasized the frivolous appearance of fashionable clothing.” (219)
The Princess in figure 8 is a good example of the fashions in Europe at the time, complete with tall, buckled (curled), powdered hairstyle and small, almost useless cap (Tortora & Eubank 241). The sitter with the orange blossom, however, doesn’t have the same hairstyle. This may be explained two ways: first, that she is very young. Children often sported toned-down versions of what their parents were wearing, and in the 1770s especially rarely put their hair up so high. Second, it may be that she lives in a colony of Spain or Great Britain. While some ladies did take part in French hair fashions, many did not, especially in Latin America. Her hair is styled with a small amount of height at front, suitable for a conservative 1770s look that cannot be confused with earlier decades. Her cap is the same: fashionable enough, yet not as extravagant as it could be (Fig. 9). Depending on her hair texture, it is possible that she may have been able to achieve the puffed look without relying on pomade and hair pieces (known as “rats”) as most white European women did, which explains the lack of powder.
ighteenth-century caps in her entry “ encyclopedia Clothing and Fashion: American Fashion from Head to Toe (2015):
“The cap was part of fashionable indoor wear. Often it was made of the same materials as the neck handkerchief, elbow ruffles, and tucker. These pieces made up a ‘suit of linen’ or ‘suit of lace,’ which identified the materials they were made of… Sometimes fashion commanded that the apron match as well, but it was still sold separately.” (141)
The sitter’s ‘suit of lace’ does not fully match, though we cannot see her cap well enough to know whether it is coordinated to another part. Her fichu has a windowpane pattern and her trims are striped. Her forearms, on the other hand, are partially covered by fine Chantilly lace engageantes (sleeve ruffles). The most fashionable of women would have had enormous ones, sometimes in several tiers (Fig. 10), which tells the viewer that this sitter is less ostentatious (Doering 12). Her apron and fichu, however, are so fine as to be completely transparent. Aprons like this were decorative only, and showed the viewer that the sitter was wealthy enough to purchase such transparent, fine silk or cotton, and that she did not have to do any manual labor, which would have required a sturdier apron (Doering 7).
Under her dress, she must be wearing a chemise, a pair of stays, and, judging by the sideways-width of her skirt, probably a pair of pocket hoops (Fig. 11) or small panniers. This silhouette, with width pushed sideways rather than all around or to the back, places her after the 1750s and before the late 1770s in terms of fashion (Tortora & Eubank 240). The German National Museum has this to say of pocket hoops:
“As an alternative to [panniers, pocket hoops] could be strapped on, giving the dress on top of it a similar silhouette. They were comfortable to wear, and the pockets that were sewn into them could be used by the wearer to carry all sorts of accessories.”
She is surely also wearing heeled shoes, stockings, at least one petticoat, and a pair of pockets underneath her gown (Doering 11-14).
Her earrings appear to be cut-steel (Fig. 12), a less expensive material popularized in the mid-18th century that in effect could rival diamonds (Armstrong 182, Ward 295). In her book The Jeweler’s Eye (1986), Laura L. Vookles describes the construction process:
“Cut steel, a jewelry material mentioned as early as the Elizabethan era, was produced in quantity by the middle of the eighteenth century. A steel jewel consisted of a shaped back plate which was pierced with as many holes as the design required, and into each of faceted mild steel stud was riveted. Such studs could be worked and polished easily, and mini 18th century examples have as many as 15 facets.” (22)
While it may initially have simply been a cheaper substitute for diamonds and marcasite, cut-steel jewelry became popular in its own right. Isabel Parreño y Arce, Marquesa de Llano in figure 13 wears large girandole earrings and a triple-tiered necklace, all of cut steel, to accessorize her already rich and glittering attire. This sitter’s multiple strands of pearls may also be a hint to her location; the necklace of choice for the most fashionable of European women around this time was of gems or paste jewels (Fig. 8). Pearls are more common – almost ubiquitous – in New Spanish portraits because they were “plentiful in the Caribbean and the Sea of Cortés” and very much in the “New Hispanic taste”; to the point that even some enslaved women in Mexico were able to purchase pearl necklaces of their own (Gámez 39,183, 220, 257). Both Dominican women in figure 14 are wearing multi-strand pearl necklaces, despite being out and about and not dressed in formal European styles.
The orange-blossom girl is not wearing an extremely fashionable gown for the mid-1770s – a gown with a stomacher would have been more formal, and a polonaise, levité, or jacket-and-petticoat combination might have been more current choices, as fashion plates tend to show (Fig. 15). While round gowns, or “nightgowns,” were becoming more popular at this time, few women chose to be painted in them due to their simplicity and informality.
- “1729 | Mrs. Francis Brinley and Her Son Francis.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/12602
- Armstrong, Nancy. Jewellery: An Historical Survey of British Styles and Jewels. Guildford: Lutterworth Press, 1973. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/3207512
- Baumgarten, Linda. What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/612301448
- Braimah, Ayodale. “Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804).” BlackPast, 3 June 2014. www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/belle-dido-elizabeth-1761-1804/
- Callahan, Colleen. “Children’s Dress and Fashion, 1715-1785.” in
- Hybridity and Its Discontents: Considering Visual Culture in Colonial Spanish America.” Colonial Latin American Review 12:1 (2003) 5-35. “
- Doering, Mary D. “Accessories, 1715-1785.” in
- Gámez, Ana Paulina, Pierce, Donna, Rogelio Ruiz Gomar, and Clara Bargellini. Painting a New World: Mexican Art and Life 1521-1821. Denver, CO: Denver Art Museum, 2004. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/474520310
- “J. Schul.., Mid 18th Century | Portrait of a lady, three quarter length, holding an orange tree flower.” Sotheby’s, Lot 238, Master Paintings and Sculpture Day Sale, 30 January 2020, New York. https://www.sothebys.com/en/buy/auction/2019/master-paintings-sculpture-day-sale/j-schul-mid-18th-century-portrait-of-a-lady-three
- Kaufmann, Miranda. Black Tudors: The Untold Story. London: Oneworld Publications, 2020. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/1083265546