World of Visual Arts
New Forms of Imperial Art
From the eighteenth century various European artists came to India, along with the British traders and rulers. They brought with them the idea of realism.
Realism meant that the artist had to depict everything like real life. This was possible with the use of oil painting with which the contemporary Indian artists were not familiar. The use of oil paint made it possible for the artist to make images which looked real.
Looking for the picturesque: Picturesque landscape painting was one of the popular traditions of the European painters. In those paintings, India was depicted as a quaint land. Its landscape was shown as rugged and wild; which was yet to be tamed by human hands.
The Daniells: Thomas Daniell and his nephew William Daniell were the most famous of the visiting landscape painters. They came to India in 1785 and stayed for seven years. They travelled to northern and southern India. They produced some of the most evocative landscapes of India. Their large oil paintings on canvas were regularly exhibited in Britain and their albums of engravings were quickly bought up by the British public. The public was always eager to know about Britain’s empire.
Portraits of authority
Portrait painting was another popular art form in colonial India. The rich and the powerful (both British and Indian), wanted their portrait on canvas. While the traditional Indian artists made miniature portraits, the European painters made large and lifelike portraits. The person who commissioned these paintings tried to project his importance by the size of the painting.
Johan Zoffany was the most famous of the visiting European painters of portraits. He was a German who migrated to England and came to India in the 1780s for five years.
The portraits of British officials project a lavish lifestyle. The Indians are always shown in the shadow; as submissive people in these portraits.
Many Indian nawabs also commissioned huge oil portraits by European painters. For them, this was the only way to show their power because they already had lost their authority to the colonial power. Moreover, this was one of the various ways in which a nawab could imitate the lifestyle of the British.
History painting was another category of imperial art. Various episodes of British imperial history were projected dramatically through such paintings. Such paintings enjoyed great prestige among the British public as they showcase the British power. These painters took firsthand accounts of travelers to make initial sketches for such paintings.
Imperial history paintings were an attempt to create a public memory of imperial triumphs. Victory was a thing which should be implanted in public memory; both Indian and British. Such paintings were used as tools to showcase the British as invincible and all powerful.
What Happened to the Court Artists?
This was also the period when the artists who used to work in the courts of various kings saw a change in their life and fortune. Some of them continued to paint in the traditional style of miniature paintings and mural painting. For example; Tipu Sultan always resisted the cultural traditions associated with the British. Hence, he gave patronage to various court painters. His palace at Seringapatam was covered with murals done by local artists.
A different trend can be seen in the court of Murshidabad. We should recall that the British had installed their puppet nawabs in Murshidabad. Hence, the court at Murshidabad encouraged local artists to absorb the British artistic style. The local artists at the court of Murshidabad began to use perspective and light and shadow in their paintings.
Some of the local painters were not so lucky. They lost their influence and wealth because of lack of patrons. They turned to the British. Many British officials wanted to collect the depiction of India as done by the local artists. A vast number of images of local plants and animals, historical buildings and monuments, festivals and processions, trade and crafts, castes and communities, etc. can be found to be painted by local artists. These pictures are usually referred to as Company paintings.