In Bridgerton, the period melodrama from Shondaland streaming on Netflix, art is everywhere, and everyone is talking about it. Set in early 19th-century England, the series focuses on the high-born Bridgerton family as its eldest daughter navigates the complex rituals of the 1813 debutante season. Art, and how the characters engage with it, underscore the racial and sexual politics that drive the show’s narrative.
The show’s novel concept centers on the question of Queen Charlotte’s biracial identity. It imagines that “England’s first Black queen” has integrated British society and that racial equality is an accepted fact of life. Indeed, the interracial romance of the main protagonists, Daphne Bridgerton and Simon, Duke of Hastings, is the least scandalous aspect of their relationship.
The paintings gracing the walls of the Queen’s splendid residences are also diverse. The show’s production designers have created portraits of Black aristocrats to hang alongside well-known paintings of white nobles by artists like Anthony van Dyck and Thomas Gainsborough.
In a striking example, Queen Charlotte sits before a portrait based on Diego Velázquez’s celebrated likeness of Juan de Pareja. It is an illuminating inclusion: Pareja, of mixed race, was an enslaved assistant in the artist’s studio. On-screen, his head and collar have been digitally superimposed on a three-quarter-length figure facing left. The resulting composite image transforms an actual portrait of an enslaved artist into an imaginary one of a Black aristocrat, presumably meant to represent one of the Queen’s ancestors.
English society in Bridgerton assumes racial harmony, however idealistically. Its treatment of women, unfortunately, remains mired in outdated stereotypes. The female characters, when not matronly, are either naïve virgins (the debutantes) or lustful exotics (Siena Rosso, Anthony’s opera-singing mistress, and Madame Delacroix, the alluring dressmaker). Same-sex attraction exists, but only for men, and it must be suppressed, relegated to coy conversations in the all-male social clubs; one notable exception being a glimpse of Henry Granville embracing his male lover, clothes off, at one of the wild parties the artist likes to host at his studio.
Visiting the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition at Somerset House, the bookish Eloise Bridgerton and a confused Penelope Featherington stand before a painting of Venus and her nymphs by the French artist Louis Jean François Lagrenée. Infuriated by the sexism of the debutante ritual, Eloise finds an apt metaphor in Lagrenée’s boneless nudes: “Like all of these paintings, it was done by a man, who sees women as nothing but decorative objects.” (No doubt she would have expressed similar reservations about the Getty’s fine painting of Mars and Venus by the same artist).
In an adjacent gallery, away from the crowd, Daphne and Simon quietly study a landscape in the style of Claude Lorrain, which Simon’s mother had given to the Royal Academy. Simon finds it dull, but for the sensitive Daphne its serene beauty inspires a poetic reverie, transporting her to quiet mornings at her country house. “I am comforted and at peace,” she says. “The others are certainly very grand and impressive, but this one is intimate.” It is at this moment the couple realizes their depth of feeling for one another. Later, Simon succeeds in recovering the painting for his own collection.
Aside from ancestral portraits and this one landscape, Greek and Roman myths form the primary subjects of the paintings in Bridgerton. Daphne (her name, like those of several of the debutantes, derives from classical literature) sleeps between a pair of paintings of Venus and Cupid in the style of François Boucher. Their presence is an ironic commentary on her sexual inexperience.
When Daphne’s brother Benedict visits Granville’s studio for a session of life drawing, he encounters several paintings representing Danaë and Psyche, virginal beauties from ancient myth preyed upon by men. Two of them currently hang at the Getty Museum: Orazio Gentileschi’s Danaë and the Shower of Gold and Hendrick Goltzius’s The Sleeping Danaë Being Prepared to Receive Jupiter.
In the world of Bridgerton, these are Granville’s own creations, “the pieces I do for myself,” different from his public portraits, which Benedict had found “cold and lacking inner life.” Art historians can only blanch at the absurdity of these early 17th-century pictures, one by an Italian, the other by a Dutch artist, being claimed as the work of a painter in Regency England. More plausible is a third canvas, Cupid and Psyche, painted by the French artist Jacques-Louis David in 1817, four years after the show’s timeframe. In any case, none of these pictures was ever in England.
But no matter. Like all the works of art in Bridgerton, their appearance contributes to the drama. As characters from classical mythology, Danaë and Psyche were imagined as precious objects of desire, to be hidden away, manipulated, and, in the case of Danaë, violated by the gods. Here, they are painted stand-ins for the trapped young ladies in Regency high society, forced into desperate maneuvers to attract husbands.
At the same time, these provocative paintings establish Granville’s studio as a place apart, a louche sanctuary liberated from the constraints of aristocratic culture. In this inclusive, art-filled world, members from different social classes chat and smoke, artists (women and men) sketch from nude models (male and female), and uninhibited sexual freedom (hetero and queer) reigns. As Granville says to a seduced Benedict: “There is no expectation or judgment here. You can feel free to be yourself.” Art, in Bridgerton, may reinforce the status quo, but it also can visualize emancipation.