Artist’s representation of celebrations of “Charak Puja” festival
Emergence of the British as a dominant power in India encouraged British professional artists to come to India towards the late 18th century. They were able to earn fame and fortune through landscape paintings of the Indian panorama and by making portraits of the East India Company’s ruling elite as well as Indian nawabs and princes. There was a growing interest in England for pictures of Indians with their strange customs and manners, fascinating occupations, novel forms of transport, diverse musical instruments and lively fairs and festivals.
For English men and women coming to India, there was a real curiosity to understand the people around them but no book on costumes or ways of life was available at that time. It was in 1794 that Francois Baltazar Solvyns, a French artist living in Calcutta who was neither proficient in landscape painting nor in portraiture, decided to apply his talents in the neglected field of depicting Indian people and their way of life.
Born in Antwerp in 1760, Solvyns studied painting under Quertermont and won prizes at the Antwerp Academy. However, he had not much success in his profession and in 1790 he set out to seek his fortune as an artist in India. He had high hopes about succeeding in India as he had heard about the success of a number of British artists who had established a steady market for their work amongst the Europeans in Calcutta and in the courts of Indian princes.
Solvyns arrived in India in 1791 but he found he could make a living only by accepting odd jobs from the East India Company for ceremonial decorations and the cleaning or restoration of paintings. He also gave instructions in oil painting, watercolour and chalks as seen from his advertisements that appeared from time to time in different newspapers in Calcutta.
His most remunerative work, however, seems to have been the embellishment of coaches and palanquins for the Calcutta coach makers. While struggling for his existence in Calcutta, Solvyns noticed the keen British interest in the diverse Indian communities and their ways of life. He decided to satisfy this demand by producing a comprehensive definitive work. He was thus the first professional artist to undertake a serious study of Indian communities, their costumes and customs. After his association with some learned Indians, he had already come under the spell of India and praised the country in superlative terms. He even learnt Hindi and Sanskrit from Brahmin teachers. It was in February 1794 with the encouragement of Sir William Jones, a renowned orientalist and founder of the Royal Asiatic Society at Calcutta, that he launched a grandiose project to produce “250 coloured etchings descriptive of the manners, customs, character, dress and religious customs of the Hindoos”.
Being the first venture of its kind, Solvyns’ project brought in sufficient subscriptions that enabled him to proceed with his plan. He recorded that his pictures of the Indian scene “would be particularly interesting to those who had resided many years in India, as a help to them, on their retreat to their native country to recall occurrences of their youth and scenes formerly familiar to them”.
He began drawing his subjects from life, which included men and women of every possible caste or calling ranging from high-caste Brahmins to milkwomen and sweeper. He portrayed many servants with their specific duties in European households such as a Sarkar, Hooka-bardar, Abdar etc. he also drew pictures of the colourful Indian festivals, ascetics and mendicants roaming about in the towns and villages, various forms of transport, including boats on the river, different kinds of pipes for smoking and a variety of musical instruments.
After completing these drawings, Solvyns made etchings from them and coloured them by hand. He completed his project in 1796 but continued to work for eight more years to produce further sets ordered by his subscribers. As many as 249 of these drawings are held in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Solvyns’ work was published in Calcutta in 1799.
Despite all this hard work, the venture was a financial failure. His engravings with rough etchings, fuzzy shading and a dull colouring were not much appreciated by the British public who were, by then, used to the aquatints of excellent quality with soft colouring and subtle gradation of tone. But the subjects were of great historical value and his sketches were faithful representation of what he saw with his own eyes. That Solvyns’ project was well conceived pioneering work of its own kind, was proved by the success of a pirated edition of 60 prints of redrawn Solvyns subjects brought out by a London publisher, Edward Orme. But Solvyns gained nothing out of it and was able to continue with his work thanks to the financial support from his English wife.
Solvyns left India for France in 1804. He resumed his work in Paris and produced a French folio edition of 188 plates, Les Hindous published in Paris between 1808 and 1812 in four large volumes. The accompanying descriptive text with each plate gives detailed information about the subject depicted. In his introduction of Les Hindous Solvyns describes Hindoostan as “The paradise of the world with its fertile soil, agreeable climate and the abundance of everything necessary to the wants or even the pleasures of life”. He refers to the Hindoos (sic) as “a portion of mankind exempt from ambition, from vanity, from curiosity, satisfied in the enjoyment of what nature bestowed, and possessing in their mild and calm disposition that happiness which they themselves had pursued so long in vain, through the maze of philosophy and science”.
His faithful delineations of remarkable sketches help in understanding the artist’s vision and his perception of what he saw. The French edition of his work was also not a financial success.
Later, he did not even succeed in organising a lottery of his drawings and paintings. He died in 1824. The obituary notice carried by The Calcutta Gazette ascribed Solvyns’ failure to certain shortcomings in his engravings. All the same, his work is of great historic value as it is a unique survey of the Indian people, their costumes and customs.
Although not a commercial success, Solvyns’ work had strange and unexpected powerful influence on the fortunes of Indian painters who were then struggling for existence. With the vanishing Indian patronage after the decline of the Mughal Empire, they were striving to seek fresh markets for their paintings with the new rulers — the British. Highly accomplished in their hereditary profession of painting and also receptive and adaptable to new ideas, they were on the look out for subjects that would attract their new British clients. It was here that they found Solvyns’ work as the best guide. Solvyns had employed Indian assistants in colouring and printing his massive work and they, in turn, shared their experience with other fellow artists. Throughout the first half of the 19th century Indian painters picked up the different types of subjects depicted by Solvyns, used the same water colour technique, fuzzy shadows and often the same sombre colours — browns, dull blues and greens. They visited the civil and military stations with their paintings and succeeded in creating a ready market for their sets among the European residents and travellers. These Indian painters were, in a way, the founding fathers of this new genre of painting which later came to be termed as ‘The Company School Painting’
One of the most amazing Company School works with Solvyns’ stamp is the famous ‘Fraser Collection’ of 248 sketches now held by Harvard Houghton Library carrying an inscription ‘Portraits of East Indians’.
Major Charles Collins Fraser (1760 – 1837), ADC to Governor General Wellesley seems to have engaged a local Calcutta artist to replicate Solvyns pictures as revealed by some title inscriptions in Bengali script proclaiming “After the plan and manner of Solvyns”. There is another assumption that Fraser had possibly acquired an incomplete set of uncoloured etchings by Solvyns, which he left behind after his departure from Calcutta in 1804 and that Fraser employed an Indian artist to colour and finish the set.
Art historians and scholars have taken little note of Solvyns’ pioneering work. There is hardly any mention of it in the contemporary literature on Indian visual arts. Solvyns masterpiece — Les Hindoos — is a rare publication and a copy of that is held in the British Library Collections. It is noteworthy that Prof Robert L. Hardgrave Jr. — an eminent American historian after several years of research and an in-depth study of Solvyns’ life and work has brought out a fascinating volume A Portrait of the Hindus – Baltazar Solvyns and the European images of India (2004). He has succeeded in locating the drawings and paintings by Solvyns held in different public and private collections all over the world. He has assembled these pictures and put them together in his sumptuously illustrated magnum opus.