till image from Bridgerton, featuring five women standing in an ornate room with painting hanging on the wall, watching an acrobat performing on the floor

Screen capture from Bridgerton showing Queen Charlotte reading the latest gossip from Lady Whistledown. Image © Netflix, Inc.

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.

Man wearing a black robe with white collar sits for a portrait

Juan de Pareja 1650, Diego Velázquez. Oil on canvas, 32 x 27 1/2 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Purchase, Fletcher and Rogers Funds, and Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot (1876–1967), by exchange, supplemented by gifts from friends of the Museum, 1971. Image: www.metmuseum.org

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 Its treatment of women, unfortunately, remains mired in outdated stereotypes.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).

Still image from Bridgerton, featuring two women staring up at a painting of nude women bathing in a stream

Screen capture from Bridgerton showing Eloise Bridgerton and Penelope Featherington at the Royal Academy. Image © Netflix, Inc.

Painting of nude women and nymphs bathing in a stream, with colorful fabric wrapped around themselves

Venus and Nymphs Bathing, 1776, Louis Jean François Lagrenée. Oil on canvas. Louvre Abu Dhabi. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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.

A man and woman look up at a painting of a tree in a field, which is hanging on a wall surrounded by smaller paintings

Screen capture from Bridgerton showing Daphne Bridgerton and Simon, Duke of Hastings, at the Royal Academy. Image © Netflix, Inc.

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.

A woman wearing a flowing white dress sits on a bench in front of an ornate bed, on the wall behind the bed are two paintings that depict Venus and Cupid

Screen capture from Bridgerton showing Daphne Bridgerton in her bedchamber. Image © Netflix, Inc.

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.

Still from Bridgerton that shows a man moving in front of a painting of a nude woman laying on a bed with her arm outstretched

Screen capture from Bridgerton showing Henry Granville in his house and studio. Image © Netflix, Inc.

Nude woman with fabric draped around her waist reclining on a chaise lounge, throwing a gold coins in the air with one hand as a cupid on top of the chaise reaches his arms up towards the gold

Danaë and the Shower of Gold, 1621–23, Orazio Gentileschi. Oil on canvas, 63 9/16 × 89 7/16 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2016.6. Image courtesy of Getty’s Open Content Program

Still image from Bridgerton that shows two men standing in front of a wall, on which a mirror and a painting is hanging; you can only see half of the painting depicting a woman’s legs

Screen capture from Bridgerton showing Benedict Bridgerton and Henry Granville in Granville’s house and studio. Image © Netflix, Inc.

Painting of nude woman sleeping on a cushion, with winged babies surrounding her and an older woman reaching out to her

The Sleeping Danaë Being Prepared to Receive Jupiter, 1603, Hendrick Goltzium. Oil on canvas, 68 1/4 × 78 3/4 in. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Gift of The Ahmanson Foundation (M.84.191). Image: www.lacma.org

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.

Still image from Bridgerton that shows a man and two women in front of a painting hanging on a wall; the painting depicts a nude man and woman lounging on a chaise

Screen capture from Bridgerton showing Henry Granville, Madame Delacroix, and Lucy Granville in Granville’s house and studio. Image © Netflix, Inc.

Painting of Cupid, depicted as a nude man with wings, lounges on a chaise draped in fabric with a nude woman

Cupid and Psyche, 1817, Jacques-Louis David. Oil on canvas, 72 1/2 x 95 1/8 in. The Cleveland Museum of Art. Leonard C. Hanna, Jr. Fund 1962.37

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.