The new movie “Belle,” set in 18th century England, has a distinct “Downton Abbey” air. But unlike the PBS production, “Belle” is no fiction. And far from a sympathetic enactment of aristocratic family life and its personable servants, “Belle” takes a poke at the social hierarchy of the day – the status of women, class bias, marriages calculated on money, and slavery.
Describing the unfairness that ruled class-based England, “Belle” gives you the lowdown on racism, sexism, and elitism in a single sitting. Mostly, though, “Belle” is about the slave trade that helped the ruling class prosper and otherwise edify itself. And while art can’t be said to have ever changed the world, a painting believed to be by Johanne Zoffany certainly anticipated the end of slavery before the end came. What’s more, the painting even had a part in that end.
What you see in the painting are two young women, Dido Elizabeth Belle, who is biracial, and Lady Elizabeth Murray playfully posed in sumptuous silk gowns. Both are raised by their great-uncle Lord Chief Justice of England. His high regard for Belle prompted the commissioning of the portrait and ultimately his rulings that led to the abolition of slavery in England
The making of a portrait that pictured a black person and a white person as equals was unparalleled at a time when landed gentry liked to parade its affluence in portraits that routinely showed an African servant in the background. But Belle was not a slave or a servant. She was the daughter of a Royal Navy captain and the slave he met after capturing a Spanish ship.
By way of emphasizing how unconventional it was to picture a black woman and a white woman on equal footing, consider the art of the most prominent British portraitist of the 18th century – Sir Joshua Reynolds, who painted more than 100 portraits that lent sitters a glorifying grandeur – invariably with a black servant – almost to the point of silliness. You can see Reynolds’ sense of self-importance in a self-portrait showing him dressed in the red robe and black velvet cap of an Oxford University Doctor of Civil Law. The degree was but an honorary title.
Reynolds also had a penchant for picturing children with pink cheeks, blond curls, white outfits, and colored ribbons. Belle in childhood would never have made the cut.
It’s notable that while it took the U.S. a civil war to end slavery, the British Empire did it with the passage of a law. You should see this movie.