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Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s 1881 painting of a Black woman driving a horse and carriage along a seafront poses a puzzle: who was she? Always entitled The Black Countess (La Comtesse noir), her identity and story have long remained a mystery.

The well-dressed woman certainly looks powerful, sitting bolt upright in her carriage, taut reins in her hands. Her horse gallops at a furious pace along the seafront, accompanied by a chasing dog.

Efforts are now being made to identify Black individuals in historic paintings, and the discovery of their names often throws up surprises and encourages us to look at the work in a fresh way. This is certainly the case with The Black Countess (a title that we would probably not give to a painting today). New research reveals that the woman who caught Toulouse-Lautrec’s imagination went on to lead the most extraordinary life.

Oliver Wunsch, an American art historian at Boston College, was intrigued by the painting, which hangs in the nearby Fogg Museum, part of Harvard Art Museums. He convincingly identified the woman as the Haiti-born Countess Anne Justine Angèle de Peiger née Delva de Dalmarie (we will call her Delva). He concluded his detailed account in the Burlington Magazine(October 2019) with a plea for an even fuller “portrait” of her life to be uncovered. The Art Newspaper took up Wunsch’s challenge.

Our research reveals that Delva was a highly controversial figure: she married three times (with her second husband dying from suicide), spent an enormous fortune, apparently worked for a time in the sex business and was known as the lesbian lover of a notorious courtesan.

A teenaged mother

Delva was born in Port au Prince, Haiti, on 12 April 1857, the daughter of a military general, Count Jean Pierre Damien Delva de Dalmarie. He is reputed to have been the second richest person on the Caribbean Island, after its emperor (Haiti had become independent from France in 1804). Slavery was abolished in 1794. However, the Delva family’s vast accumulated wealth may have been indirectly derived from the earlier exploitation of Haitian people of African descent.

The family left Haiti and moved to France around 1860, after the emperor was overthrown. In 1873, when Delva was 16, she married Raymond de Peiger, a civil engineer. A year later they had a daughter, Henriette. Raymond would die in 1883 in Quito, Ecuador.

It was in 1881 that the 16-year-old Toulouse-Lautrec, who was staying in Nice, painted this picture. Delva, already known as the “Black Countess”, was also wintering in the Mediterranean city. As a prominent member of the Riviera social scene, her presence at lavish events was frequently recorded in the press.

Wunsch has identified Delva as the woman in the Toulouse-Lautrec painting partly because of its title (Nice, La Comtesse Noire), recorded in a 1926 catalogue compiled by his friend Maurice Joyant. The work was then owned by the artist’s mother. As the painting was dated by the artist to 1881, Wunsch was able to track press reports (referring to her as La Comtesse Noire) and notarial records, uncovering details about her early life.

Both Delva and Toulouse-Lautrec were staying in Nice in early 1881 and it was then that one of the many dramatic episodes in Delva’s life unfurled. She had been sitting with a man in a theatre box at the opera. His former lover burst in and doused him with acid, although fortunately Delva escaped with minor injuries. Also sitting in the box was Laure Hayman (or Heymann), who would later play a key role in Delva’s story.

It remains unclear whether Toulouse-Lautrec knew Delva personally or, more likely, that he had seen the famed young woman riding along the coast at Nice. It is also possible that he had simply read about her in the extensive press coverage she fuelled.

A year after the opera incident, Delva attempted suicide by drinking poison, but luckily she was saved. Again, this was widely reported, including being the lead news in Le Petit Parisien on 7 June 1882, headlined “La Comtesse noire”.

A year later Delva appeared in a salacious book written in English with a wordy title: The Pretty Women of Paris: Their Names and Addresses, Qualities and Faults, being a complete Directory or Guide to Pleasure for Visitors to the Gay City. Named as Countess Pègere (a misspelling of Peiger), the entry on her described her fate: her husband had “squandered her money [and] left her to go on the town”. Much of the description is racist, and does not bear repeating, but it does record that “her manners and conversation are ladylike and charming”—and she was “as hot as fire”.

The Pretty Women of Paris also suggests that Delva had “lesbian diversions” and lived at 4 Rue Lapérouse with a well-known courtesan, Hayman—with whom she had earlier shared the opera box.

Hayman, a descendant of the English artist Francis Hayman (1708-76), had been born in Valparaíso, Chile. Hayman’s circle of close friends and lovers included writers such as Marcel Proust and Oscar Wilde, artists such as Jacques-Émile Blanche and royals such as the Greek king George I, the German prince Charles Egon IV and the Serbian prince Alexis Karageorgevich. Hayman was also a talented sculptor, who once depicted the American dancer Isadora Duncan.

In 1890 Delva married again, this time to the journalist and playwright Raoul Toché. Five years later Delva received an extremely alarming letter, informing her that by the time she opened it, he would be dead. Toché wrote that his body could be found in the pond of Commelles, on the estate of the Château de Chantilly. Delva immediately took the train from Paris and accompanied by two gendarmes, they discovered the body in the place where her husband had carefully planned to end his life.

The magazine L’Illustration on 26 January 1895 ran a horrific image by the artist Frédéric de Haenen, showing Toché’s body being dragged out of the pond. Two women stand further back, and the one on the very edge of the print, who is swooning, seems to have a darker face and may well represent the distraught Delva.

A front-page report in Le Matin of 19 January 1895 recorded that Toché had written a suicide note to Delva, explaining that he was taking his life because of huge gambling debts. Thanks to his considerable earnings he had accumulated an art collection, but, like his wife, he had never learned to manage money.

Delva married for a third time, to another journalist, Eugène Destez, whom she had met years earlier in Brazil. Their wedding took place in 1918 in Auvers-sur-Oise, by chance in the very village where Vincent van Gogh had spent his final days (the ceremony presumably took place in the church which the Dutch artist had so vividly depicted in 1890).

Delva died in Paris on 26 March 1929, aged 71. Her life had certainly been complicated. When Toulouse-Lautrec picked up his brush, he can have had no conception what a remarkable life the woman in his painting would eventually live.

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