Always interested in the role of art in shaping reality and narratives, I wondered if the painting of Dido and her cousin, Elizabeth, inspired the movie. Apparently, it did.
The screenwriter has said that “Belle” was initially inspired by her seeing the painting of Dido and Elizabeth at Scone Palace in Scotland. The painting, worth seeking out online, gets more beautiful the more you look at it. In the ease of their postures and the warm and confident expressions of their faces, one can see that those young women knew something – their own worth and each other’s.
Screenwriter Misan Sagay
Director of “Belle” Amma Asante
While she was an undergraduate at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland in the 1990s, Misan Sagay visited the nearby Scone Palace, where a rare double portrait caught her eye. Painted in the Gainsborough style of aristocratic figures in an Arcadian landscape, the canvas showed two young women swathed in lustrous satin, gleaming pearls circling their swan necks. The vivacious one on the left is biracial; her unhurried companion is white.
Ms. Sagay, who is Anglo-Nigerian, studied the wall label. It read: “Portrait of Lady Elizabeth Murray, circa 1778.”
Naturally, Ms. Sagay was curious. What of the woman on the left, whose forearm Elizabeth clasps so fondly?
In 2009 Amma Asante, a British-born filmmaker of Ghanaian parentage, received a screenplay written by Ms. Sagay. Attached was a postcard reproduction of the painting. Even before reading the script, Ms. Asante recalled, “I was inspired by the image.” She said that in European paintings of the late 18th century, blacks were often depicted as lower-class figures to affirm the higher status of the white subject. “I knew how unique it was,” she said, “that the black woman was not looking with adoration at the white woman, and that the white woman was tenderly touching her companion.”
How many different stories and movies and television shows and apps do you think we’d have in 2014 if we weren’t surrounded by thousands of years of paintings by white men of naked women?