The story of Belle is underscored by a portrait commissioned by William Murray of his great-nieces, Elizabeth and Dido. Dido is mixed-race, and one of the movie’s earliest scenes is of her arrival at her great-uncle’s, looking warily at a gallery of paintings in which people of color are servants; she grows up under a set of genteel, vicious strictures. The family, often uncomfortable with circumstances but at a loss to do otherwise, is fond of Dido, and her great-uncle clearly loves her, but when he commissions the portrait, Dido balks, understandably worried, and for reasons she can’t bring herself to explain to a family in which she still feels precarious.
Behind the camera, the portrait started it all. Scriptwriter Misan Sagay saw the painting while touring Scone Palace; it was the first she’d seen from that era that didn’t depict a woman of color as subservient. Though neither woman led a particularly public life, details emerged about Dido’s remarkable position: biracial but raised into high society, illegitimate but wealthy in her own right, a woman who helped her great-uncle with business. Not all of this made it into the film—and watching John Davinier lecture Dido on current events grates a little if one considers her probable historical role in her great-uncle’s affairs. But the film offers enough context that the painting becomes as fraught for us as for Dido.
Once attributed to Johann Zoffany but now considered of unknown authorship, the portrait depicts Elizabeth and Dido on an essentially-equal visual plane, with Dido as the more dynamic figure beside conventionally seated Elizabeth. Dido’s captured mid-motion, looking right at the viewer, a sly smile on her face. Elizabeth’s in a pale pink contemporary gown trimmed with lace, crowned with a band of rosettes; Dido is both more exotic and more focal, her hair in a turban and her gown slightly allegorical, its white satin drawing the painting’s light and the viewer’s eye. Even Elizabeth, her hand outstretched fondly on her cousin’s arm, seems to be encouraging us to admire Dido.
It’s a striking composition that suggests the unique situation of its subjects; that it’s so immediately striking to those familiar with the era suggests the lingering impact of art on cultural perception. This has become a topic of significant discussion in pop culture. Malisha Dewalt, who created the People of Color in European Art History blog—medievalpoc.tumblr.com—partially to debunk the concept of lily-white histories as “just the way it was,” gathers European art featuring people of color to widen awareness of their existence and to show changing perceptions of race. At first included as indicative of international contact and trade after widespread enslavement and colonization, race becomes codified as a marker that has affected assumptions regarding people of color from those looking backward: the blog features a 1537 portrait of mixed-race Giulia de’ Medici painted over as white in the 19th century. (Retroactive whitewashing continues. The blog attracts commenters claiming these works aren’t evidence of the fluid role of race; rather, they’re all victims of pigments that darkened over time.)
Dido Elizabeth’s societal position might be so unique as to be singular. Perhaps no other woman of her era began life at such social and racial disadvantages and rose to such heights of privilege. Certainly she was a serendipitous arrival in a household whose patriarch would be so crucial to English abolition. And it’s to the film’s benefit that her story allows for trappings of more conventional period pieces: silk gowns and garden parties offer contexts for a narrative of race in which everyone concerned is actually invited to the party. But overall, cinema’s history of period pieces reveals decidedly pale tendencies, centering the white experience and often sidelining, exoticizing or vilifying everyone else. That’s beginning to change, as with the popularization of blogs like Dewalt’s, where awareness of historical whitewashing increases. But for now, Belle’s position is still rarefied, just by having Dido Elizabeth, triumphant, once again the focus of the frame.