Toronto

This painting of a mystery woman challenges what we think we know about European art 

Hanging on the wall at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the painting is believed to depict a black woman in Europe sometime in the 1700s. It's a piece of art the gallery found so striking that even though the origins aren't known, it purchased it at auction for nearly $100,000 about one month ago. 

By showing people of colour, AGO can illustrate Europe's diverse history, curator says

Hanging on the wall of the Art Gallery of Ontario, the painting is believed to depict a black woman in Europe sometime in the 1700s. (Sothebys)

In a pale blue silk dress, a double string of pearls around her neck and a delicate orange blossom between her fingers, sits a mystery. 

An elegant woman, likely of African descent, stares with soft eyes straight out of the portrait, eluding visitors and scholars alike. No one seems to know her story and that of the artist who painted her.

Hanging on the wall of the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto, the painting is believed to depict a black woman in Europe sometime in the 1700s. The AGO found it so striking that even though the origins aren't known, it purchased it at auction for nearly $100,000 about one month ago. 

"We are so thrilled to have this painting because of the stories that it enables us to tell," Caroline Shields, the gallery's associate curator of European art, told CBC Radio's As It Happens.

The painting, titled simply Portrait of a lady holding an orange tree flower, stands out from others in the European collection.

Only 2 other people of colour depicted — both as servants

A black woman in a luxurious-looking silk and lace dress, adorned with jewelry, posing outdoors — it's a stark contrast to the people of colour found in much of European art, Shields explained.

Only two other paintings in the European collection feature people of colour. Both are in positions of servitude, one from the Renaissance, another from the 1800s. 

"What's really special about this new acquisition is that this figure has such individuality and confidence, and really can sort of meet our gaze and stare right back into our eyes," Shields said. 

"If she's in the Atlantic world, that places her at the height of the transatlantic slave trade and that opens up so many possible interpretations of her place within the sphere," she said. "The individuality and the sort of confidence she portrays all suggests that perhaps she's a free woman in this world."

The painting offers few obvious hints as to its story. The artist's signature is cut off, leaving only the letters "J. Schul." The rest is obscured.

'Really important now to show race'

If the gallery can narrow down the country that the artist is from, that could provide some clues, Shields says. Fashion historians may find some signposts in the specificity of her dress and jewelry. 

And that's one big point of the purchase: soliciting experts to help solve the mystery. The AGO held a Facebook live chat Monday and has already heard from scholars in several countries and hopes to be able to crowdsource for answers. 

For many visitors, the painting has already given rise to several different theories about the subject: a wealthy woman visiting Europe from Africa, an aristocrat in the tropics somewhere, a woman possibly enslaved in another way.

Regardless, it's likely to stop visitors in their tracks.

"I think it will grab the attention of all visitors here because if they saw a white [person] in this time period, it's something they're used to seeing," said visitor Arwa Bafail.

Visitor Ivy Ha agrees.

"As I was walking around the gallery, I see a lot of white people [being depicted] as superior so the first time I saw this, it's really interesting and different because you don't really see coloured people in galleries. And I feel like it's really important now to show race and colour," said Ha. 

That's not lost on Shields, who said the gallery made the deliberate decision to acquire the piece, even though its history remains a mystery. 

"She plays a role in intervening in the narratives that we tell in our galleries," said Shields. 

"Europe has been a diverse continent for its entire history as it still is today and by including figures of colour on the walls of galleries, we are able to illustrate that much more rich and diverse history than we ever have before."

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