As you get to know me better, you will discover that I am always fascinated by people of African descent that pop out here and there in the footnotes of history. Going through my bookmarks I re-stumbled upon these portraits from the Royal Photographic Society. Sarah Forbes Bonetta was an orphaned African “princess” who became the ward and god-daughter of Queen Victoria. She was married to James Pinson Labulo Davies, a West Indian merchant, in 1862 when Camille Silvy was commissioned to take these photographs.
These images resonate with our conversation about Worth and the early years of haute couture. Bonetta’s dress features the same silhouette of the fashion plates and garments that we viewed. The photograph shows that the dress was pale in color and one cannot help but wonder if it was in fact white since its was Queen Victoria who is credited with making white wedding gowns fashionable.
Bonetta had resources unavailable to the other women of African descent that I know of in Europe and America. The models Laure (Manet, Bazille, Eakins) and Maria (Nadar) that posed for artists in Paris were apparently servants based on the scant evidence available. As Baudelaire’s mistress, Jeanne Duval was not as respectable as Bonetta. Silvy’s photographs were taken before the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect and I cannot recall any portraits of free American women that have survived who had comparable status.
There is a fascinating story there that I wish I had time to explore further.