In the Eye of the Beholder

Reader Janice asks:

If there were so many portraits of Charlotte with African features…that’s pretty strong evidence that she had African features, no?

Well…no. The reason: because all of the portraits that show Charlotte’s so-called African features were painted by the same man, an artist by the name of Allan Ramsay. Ramsay was an extremely sought-after portrait painter in Georgian England. He was also a vehement opponent of slavery in the British Empire. Mario de Valdes y Cocom speculated that it was his strong opposition to slavery that prompted him to accentuate Charlotte’s African-ness as he did, as a sort of abolitionist propaganda.

But while there’s ample evidence that Ramsay was an abolitionist, there’s no evidence that Ramsay knew anything about Charlotte’s African (or possibly Moorish) ancestry. Charlotte herself probably didn’t know anything about it. Madragana, after all, was a nine times removed ancestor who died 500 years before Charlotte was ever born.

That doesn’t necessarily rule out the notion that Ramsay liked to depict his subjects with African countenances. However if he did, it stands to reason that he would have painted other British royals, nobles and notables in the same way. But he didn’t. His portrait of King George III looks very anglo:

So does his famous portrait of the canny Scot, my home boy David Hume:

So does his portrait of his wife, Margaret:

I think Ramsay painted Charlotte the way he did because he simply saw her that way.

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