My thanks go to Shivani Sud for her opinion on the possible origin of this painting. Shivani is currently preparing her upcoming PhD dissertation, “The Atelier, The Studio, The Art School: Artistic Knowledge and Painting Practices in Jaipur, ca. 1780-1920,” at University of California, Berkeley.
This particular painting on paper, featuring an imaginary city populated by various characters, is probably one of the most enigmatic works in the collection of North Indian paintings at Museum Volkenkunde. Like the other artworks that had been discussed earlier, this painting was acquired by Jean-Philippe Vogel (1871-1958) while he occupied the eminent position of Officiating Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India. There is no information on its provenance except for an handwritten inscription at the verso, probably by Vogel himself, indicating: “from Radha Krishna”, without further information. It is assumed that he received the work as a gift from the Pandit Radhakrishan (according to the museum catalogue entry). But, unlike the other works in the collection, this painting is surely not from the mountainous Pahari region, as its features and subject matter do not refer as to any representations produced in the lower western foothills of the Himalayas. Very few views of cities and urban architecture, others than those used for the setting of narratives and epics, have been depicted in the Pahari workshops.To my knowledge, the below image of Benares, attributed to the Pahari or Punjabi region (recently on display in the Perspective exhibition at the Rietberg Museum in Zurich) painted as an intricate maze of houses and buildings, is one of the few known examples (or even the solely example) known of a city represented as a subject on its own right.
The precise origin of the Museum Volkenkunde painting is unknown, although it clearly recalls the type of painting made in the markets, throughout the nineteenth century, the so-called Company or Bazaar painting, made by Indian painters for European travellers as painted souvenir. It echoes the attraction of westerners for an exotic India with naked native ladies, picturesque sceneries and local curiosities. These paintings were mainly produced in the regions occupied by British officials and merchants.The most active centres of production were located in East and West Bengal, in Kolkata, Hooghly, Patna, Murshidabad, further North and West, in Lucknow, and around Delhi, the court of the Mughal emperors, and further South along the Coromandel Coast and in Mysore. Many English patrons commissioned skilled Indian artists to portray a large array of subjects: local landscape and monuments, flora and fauna, trades, occupations and casts. All of these representations made up a visual culture reflecting the conflicting feelings of fascination and rejection for the country, with its picturesque views and confusing traditions.
However, some western patrons were particularly interested in recording Mughal architecture and colonial buildings such as mansions and palaces occupied by British rulers, buildings that reflected the grandeur and political power of the Raj. Several talented Indian painters, working for wealthy figures, were specialised in architecture and adopted the western aerial perspective and the European watercolour technique. Among others, Muhammad Amir of Karraya, active in Kolkata in 1840s executed some of the finest topographical works featuring British colonial palaces and buildings. Ghulam Ali Khan worked during the 1820s in Delhi, for the East India Company patrons, Mughal rulers, nouveaux riches and political elite and, Sita Ram who excelled in the watercolour technique such as British watercolourists, recorded landscapes from the river Ganges for the Marquis of Hastings, the Governor-General of Bengal 1813-23. Besides these most acclaimed artists, recently celebrated in the exhibition Forgotten Masters, curated by William Dalrymple at the Wallace Collection in London, a myriad of small painters were active in local bazaars and produced a generic type of painting made for consumption, tourists or buyers from the second or third ranks. If the author of this painting probably belonged to this class of artists, he nevertheless developed a very peculiar and personal style which until now does not recall any of the known productions and models.
However, Shivani Sud, PhD candidate at UC Berkeley, who has been studying city views from the 18th century Jaipur, points to a workshop in Rajasthan and possibly to Jaipur. She argues that the pose of the woman bathing and washing her hair near the river can be seen repeated in many paintings from the Rajasthani city.
Marine life such as turtle and crocodile is also encountered in some views of Europe an hybridised cities painted in Jaipur market.
Further, she pinpoints that the men’s mustaches, especially the one with the red coat on the front, are characteristic of Rajasthani figures.There are, however, features that overlap with visual productions from other cities. For instance, the white buildings with red awnings are characteristic of late Mughal paintings as well as Lucknow and Murshidabad architectures. These overlaps across the painting coming from different court productions underscore the circulation of objects and artists in northern India and the great interchange of influences often synthetised in visual art and paintings.
Shivani, among others, studied the below depiction of a ghat in Jaunpur, today holding of the San Diego Museum of Art. Although the presentation of an urban vista is far different from the Museum Volkenkunde painting, it shows great influence from European prints and stereoscopic views.In a sense, the figures wandering along the ghat might be reminiscent of those in our painting.
The composition of the Museum volkenkunde painting is organised in three registers occupied by twenty small scale figures. On the foreground, from right to left, we encounter a shepherd watching his cows. He wears a white dhoti tied around his waist and a red cape on his head. The middle of the composition is occupied by a feminine nude which immediately catches our eyes. As she comes out of the water, she sits on a rock in a languid pose and twists her hair to drain the water.
At her left side, a soldier in a red gown, holding his sword, raises his hands affront in a gesture of respectful greeting to the group of men standing on the dike . A little further to the left, a knight, armed with a shield and a spear wields his sword in a rather static pose. Next to him, stands another small warrior, from behind, barely visible because of the deteriorations of the support and the paint.
The second register features the river and its banks occupied by a series of buildings of different architectures and styles. In the river, two women swim among several creatures, two turtles, a freshwater crocodile and ducks. On the far right, a red boat adorned with a bow in the shape of an elephant head is driven by a man waving to someone on the river bank. While a woman carrying a jar on her head walks down the stairs to fetch water, another woman in the left hand edge, collects some water in her pot as well. A few men walk on the ghat along the river, all dressed in red coats and helped with walking sticks.
Three pavilions are erected along the ghat, two of which, octagonal in shape, are surmounted by a dome. They are reminiscent of corner towers or pavilions called chhatri built in red sandstone or white marble. These usually mark the entrance to a major building or the banks of a river. These are widely found throughout northern India, especially along the Yamuna River in the vicinity of Agra.
Between the two chhatris, a palace combines both Indian and Western architectural influences: the basement, with its blind arches and panels evokes waterfront architectural elements encountered in North India. However, the second storey with the high and narrow windows, the balustrade running all along the roof and the central kiosk surmounted by a pointed roof may refer as to European palaces. The smaller palace, in the middle of the ghat, with its strict square layout, appears to be, once again, influenced by European models.This architectural syncretism blending Western and Mughal traditions can be found in the colonial cities of Bengal and north-eastern India such as Kolkata, Patna, Murshidabad and in buildings along the banks of the Hooghly river.
Finally, the last palace, in the left hand edge, features typical architectural traits of Mughal architecture as those of Delhi or Lucknow: an open ground floor occupied by a colonnade, protected by a red awning and furnished with a red carpet. The roof supports a balustrade adorned with jali screens (perforated stone or latticed screen, usually with an ornamental pattern constructed through the use of calligraphy and geometry) and a small corner pavilion.
Various trees occupy the upper part of the painting. To the right, there is a mango tree with some fruits visible in the foliage. Two other trees shelter a monkey and two couples of birds. There is also a European touch in the way our eyes escape to the hills painted in the background thanks to a breakthrough made in the middle of the row of trees. In the sky, the flying birds seem to have escaped straight from an English watercolour.
There is a clear intention here to reproduce the aerial perspective in the arrangement of the composition, organized in three rows. However, the painter failed to accurately describe the architectural perspective of buildings and palaces. The lack of precise perspective as well as the treatment of the figures and the landscape indicate the work of a local painter who looked at Western models and wanted to be inspired by them.
The painting was badly damaged. The support had many areas of losses along the lower edge and the paint layers had unstable areas of pigment flaking and losses. These were the result of the interaction of several degradation factors, internal and external. As indicated by the two large brownish stains visible in the sky and in the lower right part of the support, the painting has suffered a previous water damage. As a result, the support weakened all along the bottom edge, with large tidelines also visible on the reverse side. This disaster, coupled with poor storage conditions in the past, certainly contributed to the aggravation of damage such as the support losses and resulting loss of pigments.
In the bottom right corner, a former conscious owner repaired the support with a patch of poor and acidic machine-made paper. Even though this repair was not of the best quality, it kept the area from deteriorating further.
The paint layers were also severely deteriorated and the phenomenon was mostly due to the technique of the painter himself. Of course, external factors such fluctuating environmental conditions and unsuitable handling and storage were responsible for pigment losses and flaking, but we could observe in close-up that the pigment losses were due to the particular way with which the painter constructed his painting. The support was, as mentioned above, made a two laminated sheets of ledger book featuring accounts and numbers. In the areas of paint losses, one can discern underlying annotations or traces of black ink. This indicates that the composition was directly painted over the calculation with no foundation or primer. In order to disguise efficiently the underlying annotations, the painter had to build up enough layers of paint. Therefore, the main elements of the composition such as the buildings, the trees, the water and the sky were first painted then, human figures and the details were painted over them. As a result, the paint structure is thick and more prone to internal movements and desquamation between the first layers and the last layers of paint. In close-up, we can clearly see that the shepherd at right, was executed above the grey ground, and his red cape and legs are today missing. Similar phenomenon is encountered in almost of the human characters such in the lady collecting water at left and in the gentleman next to her, in the knight and his horse, and the other male figures walking on the ghat.
Hence, the highly unstable painting was in a pressing need for a conservation treatment. As it is an unique example of such a subject, it was decided to carry out an interventive conservation treatment aiming to reconstitute the missing areas of the support and to restore visual unity in the painting. First, the unstable painted areas were consolidated by several passages of gelatine applied with a very thin brush in order to fix the flaking and mobile pigment particles. Once the consolidation treatment completed, the object was safer to handle and to undergo further conservation intervention. Therefore, the painting could be turned face down in order to remove the old repair and to mend the support. This operation was carried out by gently moistening the repaired paper with a block of gellan gum. Once the repair was removed, the support naturally split in two and revealed the two sheets of the ledger book that were used to make the vasli.This gave me the possibility of inserting a mending of thick Japanese paper to better reinforce the internal structure of the support.
The areas of loose along the lower edge were mended and filled in with two layers of thick and toned Japanese paper. A layer was toned in brown for the verso and in grey for the recto. The latter served as a basis for further toning.
The infills were toned in modulating hues of grey. It was deliberately chosen to not reconstitute the missing design to avoid any misinterpretation. In that sense, the small calf milking his mother, in the middle of the lower edge, has not been repainted. From a distance, the overall homogeneity of the painting is restored but closer, the infills are noticeable.
The conservation treatment allows the painting to be displayed in the museum gallery in the near future.
Just for the pleasure of the eyes, more city views with an European twist !