Hear Expert Commentary
Speaker: Judith W. Mann, PhD
Curator of European Art to 1800
Saint Louis Art Museum
I’m looking at this lovely portrait of a young woman, a pastel on blue paper. It’s become a rather famous image. She’s really engaging and someone you’d certainly like to know. We know very little about her, unfortunately, and we’ve been trying through the years to figure out just who she is. For years it was thought she was this poet Phyllis Wheatley, who worked in London in the mid 18th-century. There is a famous portrait of Phyllis Wheatley where she seated at a desk and shown in profile and she too was a woman of color. But really, there’s very little similarity between the two.
There was also a well known young woman from the West Indies who came to England in the mid 18th-century and raised on and an estate there and then recorded in a portrait in 1779. Her name was Dido Belle, and she does look a bit like our sitter, but there’s really no other evidence to support that and most people don’t think that’s who she is.
Recently though, we’ve got some new information. We’ve been able to photograph and read accurately the watermark in the paper, an image imprinted in the surface of the paper, and it tells us that this paper was made by a paper maker in the Netherlands who started working in 1751. In addition, we’ve looked at the clothing our sitter wears and the headscarf in particular is something of a fashion that wasn’t worn in Europe but was worn in the Caribbean. So we take her to be a young woman from the Caribbean who made her way, probably to the port of Amsterdam, and then either she herself commissioned a pastel portrait, pastel was so popular in the 18th-century, or an artist was taken with her for many of the same reasons we find her so engaging and decided to make this lovely work.