Phillis Wheatley or Dido Elizabeth Belle?

  • May 29, 2014 12:43

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Image identified as Phillis Wheatley
Revue des Colonies (Paris, c.1835)
Detail, portrait of Elizabeth Murray and her cousin, Dido Elizabeth Belle
Scone Palace, Perth, Scotland
Frontispiece portrait of Phillis Wheatley, author of "Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral" (London, 1773)
Poems on Various Subjects… (1773)

Now that we have the fascinating story of Dido Belle, let’s take another look at the supposed portrait of the American slave and literary prodigy, Phillis Wheatley, in evening dress (Image 1). Published in a French review in the 1830s, long after Wheatley’s death, there is virtually no documentation to establish the subject’s identity. The historical context suggests it is far more likely a depiction of Dido Belle.

(Image 2) Detail from double portrait of Elizabeth Murray and her cousin, Dido Elizabeth Belle by an unknown artist (formerly att. Johann Zoffany). Scotland (1779). Oil on canvas. Scone Palace, Perth. Private collection of the Earl of Mansfield.

The engraved portrait of Phillis Wheatley (Image 3) was used as the frontispiece to her collection of poems, Reflections on Various Subjects Religious and Moral (London, 1773). It is attributed to the poet and visual artist Scipio Moorhead, a slave in Boston, Massachusetts, and a friend of Phillis Wheatley. One element of the identification of the  portrait as Wheatley might have been a mention of the subject’s finger held to her cheek.

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Finding Edmonia Lewis and Others

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The emphasis is on 19th-Century African American artists Edmonia Lewis, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Edward Mitchell Bannister, and Meta Warrick Fuller.

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