Behind 'Belle': An 18th Century Portrait Ahead Of Its Time

Play associated audio

Director Amma Asante found the story behind her new movie, Belle, in a painting: artist Johann Zoffany's 18th century portrait of two beautiful, young English ladies, draped in silks and pearls. The twist? One is biracial.

Belle is based on the real-life story of that woman, Dido Elizabeth Belle, who was the daughter of a Royal Navy captain and the slave he met after capturing a Spanish ship.

As a young girl, Dido's father brought her to the grand country home of his uncle and aunt, who were already raising the daughter — white, of course — of another nephew. They agreed that girl was much in need of a companion like Dido. But instead of bringing Dido up as a servant, they chose to bring her up as a member of the family.

Dido's great-uncle was traditional, but with a progressive bent. As Britain's top judge, he eventually decided a key legal battle involving the slave trade, all while raising his mixed-race niece whom he adored.

Asante, who is herself black, tells NPR's Renee Montagne what makes the painting so remarkable:

"Around the time of the 18th century, we really were — people of color were — an accessory in a painting. We were there rather like a pet to express the status of the main person in the painting, who was always white. And for anybody who's lucky enough to see the painting, what you see is something very, very different. You see a biracial girl, a woman of color, who's painted slightly higher in the painting, depicted slightly higher than her white counterpart. She's staring directly out at the painter, you know, with a very direct, confident eye. ... So this painting flipped tradition and everything that the 18th century told us about portraiture."

Asante says the painting, and its backstory, offered a unique storytelling opportunity:

"These two girls were aristocrats. You know, they held very high positions in society; their family held a very high position in society. What I saw from the painting was this opportunity, if I got it right, to tell a story that would combine art history and politics."

Click the audio link above to hear the rest of Morning Edition's interview with director Amma Asante.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

Comic-Con Fans Continue The Epic Battle Between Science And Fiction

Fans of science fiction have long wrestled with the question of just how much science should be in their fiction. Advocates of different approaches met at San Diego's Comic-Con.
NPR

Scraped, Splattered — But Silent No More. Finally, The Dinner Plate Gets Its Say

Instagram is the Internet's semi-obsessive, borderline-creepy love letter to food. But behind every great meal is a plate doing a pretty-OK job. So a comedian made an Instagram to celebrate plates.
NPR

Leaked Democratic Party Emails Show Members Tried To Undercut Sanders

Just days before the Democratic National Committee convention gets underway, WikiLeaks releases almost 20,000 emails among DNC staff, revealing discussions of topics from Bernie Sanders to the media.
NPR

Making The Cloud Green: Tech Firms Push For Renewable Energy Sources

Few people can demand what kind of electricity they get. But Microsoft and Facebook, which operate huge, power-hungry data centers, are trying to green up the electricity grid with their buying power.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.