Zoffany or not Zoffany: That is NOT the question
by Jerry Leibowitz
It’s like I’m stuck inside a painting that’s hanging in the Louvre, my throat starts to tickle and my nose itches but I know I can’t move… Bob Dylan
In my pretend job as art investigator, I often call upon myself to solve great mysteries of the art world. (See Who is James Renwick and what are his Plans? and Bust of Bill Richmond?). I’d like to think my specialty is American art from 1770 to 1800, especially those works done by expatriate artists residing in England. In the London studio of American born Benjamin West, a favorite of the King, American born Gilbert Stuart, John Singleton Copley and John Trumbull all honed their craft. All four left America prior to the Revolution for gritty London, ostensibly because there was so little worthy art to study in Colonial America. I have long suspected there were other reasons to leave and that each artist has a special story largely lost in the telling of their history.
This brings us to the mystery of who painted the following portrait:
Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray (by an unknown artist, formerly attributed to Zoffany) from the collection of the Earl of Mansfield, Scone Palace, Perth
The portrait has taken on a new significance since the relationship between the two women is explored in the recently released motion picture Belle. I have seen the movie but have not seen the portrait except online. Still I am undaunted to name its artist. I am quite convinced it is the work of John Singleton Copley, circa 1782.
Here’s why. Copley had motive, opportunity, and capability and it is consistent with his work and his temperament.
Although the ages of the sitters cannot be precisely determined, Both Dido and Lady Elizabeth were born in the early 1760’s, placing them about 20 years old at the time I believe the portrait was painted. Seems plausible. Copley painted Lord Mansfield in full attire about 1782:
It certainly would have given Copley the opportunity to paint the two nieces under his care at the same time. The painting of the nieces must have been a private piece since it apparently never left the possession of the Mansfield family. For whatever reason, the artist and subject chose to keep its creation a private matter. Other paintings of Lord Mansfield exist, but none of those painters have quite the story of John Singleton Copley, a story which might have lead the artist to depict the two women as shown.
Looking at the Dido/Lady Elizabeth painting, one notices that the white woman is painted with a dark background and the black woman is painted on a light background. In essence it is like two paintings, each of which wonderfully brings out aspects of the sitters. An examination of Copley’s work shows that when he painted white subjects (obviously most of the time), he often painted them with dark backgrounds. On the rare occasion that he painted a black subject, he would use a light background. As seen in the known Copley masterworks shown here, at least twice he found a way to do just that in the same painting.
In the Dido/Lady Elizabeth painting, Lady Elizabeth appears altogether comfortable in her traditional pose in her fine dress. She is portrayed as intelligently reading and reaching out to Dido with an innocent depiction, much the same way as numerous portraits of the era. Were the other subject a white sister or cousin, her depiction would be unremarkable.
But Dido…she has things to do. She’s carrying her prop in a manner that says to me…”let me put this down and do something important”. She is not quite comfortable just sitting there for all eternity. She does not seem to show scorn or distaste for Lady Elizabeth, just a desire to get out of the frame as quickly as possible. She is painted as vivacious and interesting in contrast to the more wooden Lady Elizabeth. There is no sense that one is more important or worthy of a portrait than the other, just that they are two quite different people with different approaches to life.
The attribution to Zoffany seems logical since he was known to paint interesting conversation pieces including people of different races. Here is his Portrait of Claude Alexander painted in India about 1783:
Depending on your view, one look at this painting either proves or disproves the Zoffany attribution of Dido/Lady Elizabeth. I note that the dog looks more engaging than the dark-skinned man. The depiction of Lady Elizabeth seems to be in his style, but there is nothing in his oeuvre that brings to mind this depiction of Dido. I trust the experts who have doubted this attribution.
I suggest that it would take an artist with what we might today call a social conscience or awareness to capture this scene depicted in Dido/Lady Elizabeth. Perhaps Lord Mansfield or the sitters chose the style, and they were paying the bill, but it seems more likely that the scene was set by the artist, the creator who solved the white/black issue in such a unique way. There were numerous portrait painters who had the technique to paint the scene, but really only John Singleton Copley displayed the suitable social conscience. (See Zoffany continued)