Painting by Alexander Roslin via Wikimedia Commons.
If you download the Google Arts & Culture app, you can take a selfie of yourself & Google will compare your likeness to a painting. My first result paired me with a portrait of Zoie Ghika, Moldavian princess; I found this all at once flattering & eerie. Ghika shares my straight nose, small mouth, & double lidded eyes. I took my picture several more times, getting matched again & again with this princess with increasing accuracy.
I wanted to know who she was.
Zoie Ghika’s portrait was commissioned by Catherine the Great. After Russia conquered Moldova, Catherine kept Ghika as a member of the royal court. She was an exotic presence, symbolic of the expansion of the Russian Empire to the Black Sea. Google Arts & Culture asks, “What do you see in her gaze and her posture? Is she a cowed princess or a proud refugee?” These questions make me flinch.
At the time of this writing, I’ve returned 0 leads on further biographical information of Zoie Ghika outside of this portrait. On Wikipedia, the name “Zoie” is absent from the Ghika family’s entry; the entire 17th century is never mentioned in the entry for Moldova. I searched my university’s library for “Zoie Ghika” & other anglicized spellings of her name & found 0 results each time.
What I can say for certain is that her portrait was done by Alexander Roslin in 1777. Roslin was a painter of the Rococo tradition, a late-Baroque style that embraces lightness in composition & theme. For a few decades, it dominated fine & decorative arts in Europe. The nostalgia of Rococo is everywhere in Miami, where I’ve lived for the past year & a half.
Roslin became one of the most sought after painters because of his masterful rendering of texture. He had a particularly fine reputation for his representations of expensive fabrics and delicate complexions, which is a way of saying he was especially good at painting rich white people.
In the midst of his hundreds of portraits of men & women of 18th c. European aristocracy, most with powdered wigs & ornate clothing, Zoie Ghika’s portrait sticks out.
Google Arts & Culture says Zoie Ghika’s costume is “elegant without suggesting excessive wealth.” She wears a turban adorned with roses, a white silk dress, no jewelry. Her fashion is contemporary Moldavian for her time; the flowered head wrap & light-silk blouse are motifs of Moldavian folk costumes, & of most costumes from the Caucasus region.
In the late 19th century, P. T. Barnum hired American women to dress up as “Circassian Beauties” in his freak shows (circassian being the term for what we now call caucasian). In doing so, Barnum invented an image of exoticized whiteness. He was emboldened by the pseudo-science of Blumenbach, which theorized that people of the Caucasus region were the most primitive & therefore purest members of the white race.
[T]heir outfits were inventions, having nothing to do with the actual clothing of women from the Caucasus region. What the “Circassian” costume did do was invoke a certain Orientalism, a hint of the harem and the seraglio. […] The costume did much to accent both exoticism and sexuality by using strange cuts, fabrics, jewelry, and embroidery, and often by exposing arms, legs, and busts in ways that would otherwise have been out of bounds for a white Victorian woman. […] The untamed hair evoked exoticism; it served as a marker that this woman, who otherwise appeared entirely white, was in fact something Other. Other features suggested this Otherness, such as the clothing. There is also the fact that so many “Circassian” women’s stage names began with “Z”: the letter itself is largely foreign to English and American names—almost none begin with it. Also peculiar is how many of the “Circassians” have names beginning with a combination of “Z” and “A” or “A” and “Z”—Zublia Aggolia, Zalumma Agra, Aggie Zolutia—as if they were the alpha and omega of whiteness.
-Gregory Fried, A Freakish Whiteness: The Circassian Lady and the Caucasian Fantasy.
Zoie Ghika’s portrait was completed two years after the publication of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s On The Natural Variety of Mindkind. This text was foundational to the social construction of race & the proliferation of policy based in racial discrimination, & was also crucial to Barnum’s illegitimate “most beautiful woman in the world.”
Ghika’s portrait is also exemplary of the height of realism. The 18th century did not have cameras. Instead, they had portraiture, & painters of the time strived to capture light the way the human eye does. New technology of pigments & paint allowed Roslin & his contemporaries to reach a quality of realism previously unparalleled in art history.
Of course, technology has evolved exponentially over 200 years. Realism has given way to style–popular artists no longer strive to represent things as they are, but rather, they strive to represent things as only they can.
The Google Arts & Culture app uses face detection to pair you with a painting. This technology uses the negative space of your skin–your nostrils, eyes, & mouth–to measure your features. It is, in fact, the same technology that allows us to put on flattering or ridiculous filters on our faces on Snapchat & Instagram.
Because of Ghika’s status as a conquered princess, her portrait offers a specific kind of insight into beauty standards at the intersection of race. I presume Ghika lived out her days in the court of Catherine the Great as an Other. Less than a hundred years later, Barnum fabricated a wholly American interpretation of beauty in this tradition: pure whiteness hyper-sexualized by appropriating dress & hairstyle from non-white cultures. In essence, he needed to exalt white purity while performing exoticism of non-white cultures. It’s a special kind of cognitive dissonance that’s the product of the settler’s imagination, the legacy of which we still see whenever a famous white women strums up controversy by appropriating black culture in order to edgy.
Despite my research, Zoie Ghika cannot tell her own story in her own words. Who she was, whether she married, or had any gifts or talents, remains unknown. All we have is her portrait as rendered at the inception of white identity, by another man from another culture, as she sat in the palace of her conqueror.