Portrait of a Lady
In the catalogue Indian Miniature Painting, Chandra describes Portrait of a Lady: “The lady wears a pink skirt and a white robe. She is sensitively drawn, the linear rhythms, clearly derived from the Pahari style, being readily apparent in spite of the overlay of fussier technique.” (Chandra 50). Chandra aptly describes the artist’s exaggerated attention to clothing: the woman’s facial features and bodily shape are drowned in layers of swirling sheets of cloth, and the clothing and its material seem to be the subject of the image rather than the lady herself. The pencil sketches visible underneath the light pink coloring of this woman’s skirt, coupled with the unfinished sketch of a head on the reverse side of the image, suggest that this work might be unfinished. Even so, the artist’s emphasis on clothing is pivotal.
Copyright 2009, Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison
This Indian miniature painting was a gift from Earnest C. Watson and Jane Werner Watson to the Chazen Museum. Jane Watson and her husband, who was working at the time as a science attaché to the United States Embassy, purchased this work during their stay in New Delhi, India (1960-1962). The prior owners of this painting are unknown. (Provenance notes, Chazen Museum)
October 29, 1971 – January 2, 1972: Indian Miniature Painting from the Collection of Earnest C. and Jane Werner Watson, Chazen Museum (known as Elvehjem Art Center during the exhibition), Madison, WI, USA no. 239.
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An unfinished sketch of a head, done in pencil and ink, can be seen on the reverse side of the image.
This image was created in the mid-nineteenth century. The subject appears to be wearing a stitched skirt (ghaghra) and a long head-cloth (odhnis). The manner in which the drapery is cast around her body is similar to the style of dressing found in northern India during the early nineteenth century. (Tarlo 28). During the time this image was created, Britain established a centralized government in India. Because it is unknown who the artist was and where he was located during the execution of the work, it is unclear what types of cultural interactions may have occurred between the artist and his patron. Mildred Archer states that Company paintings were made for and marketed to European patrons that were employed by the East India Company (Archer 1-19). However, sultans and princes under British rule may also have been patrons of Company-style paintings, as many Indian princes and rajahs in the late eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries were patrons and collectors of European art (Sutton 15-17). This trans-cultural contact through the exchange of art had an early precedent in the reigns of the Mughal rulers. One of the earliest recorded accounts occurred in 1580, when Akbar (r. 1556-1605) invited Portuguese Jesuits living in Goa to stay at his palace in Delhi. The exchange of engravings, manuscripts, and books led to the production of a panoply of Christian images that adorned Akbar’s court (Bailey 24-5). Additionally, Mughal women, such as Jahangir’s (r. 1605-1627) wife, Nur Jahan, were often avid patrons of the arts; Nur Jahan’s most notable commission was the Itimad ud-Daula, a two-storied, white marble structure with extensive pietra dura work erected for her father’s tomb (Mitter 122).
The East India Company (1600-1873)
The East India Company was formed to trade with East and Southeast Asia and India and was instituted by royal charter on Dec. 31, 1600. Although it started as a monopolistic trading company, it soon became involved in politics and acted as an instrument of British imperialism in India from the early eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century. The company was founded with the hope of dominating the East Indian spice trade. This trade had been a monopoly of Spain and Portugal until the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 gave England the opportunity to appropriate the lucrative market.
During the mid-to-late nineteenth century, raw textiles were imported from India and used to produce machine-made, high-quality clothing which was then marketed back to Indians. These machine-made garments were cheaper than homespun and homemade clothing found in India. Due to the increased affordability of stitched clothing, elite Indian men began to mix and match Indian and British clothing to create hybrid styles. However, as Tarlo articulates, the total emulation of the British by Indian elites posed a threat to the national identity of British men. In order to control the ready adoption of European dress, the British passed legislation prescribing what Indians should wear for official and ceremonial occasions (Tarlo 42).
The story of clothing played out differently for women. Most women adopted stitched petticoats and blouses but maintained traditional saris. In Portrait of a Lady, the artist depicts handspun, long and flowing pieces of cloth. This type of cloth was a symbol of Indian national identity and came to play a prominent role with Gandhi and the Swadeshi movement in the twentieth century. Given this historical context, the attention paid to clothing in this image highlights the complexity of interactions between British and Indian subjects by conveying both the symbolism of clothing and its relationship to women and national identity.
This image invokes issues related to Indian artists working in the Company style as compared to British artists working in a Romantic aesthetic; such a contrast can be seen in the differences between an image like Portrait of a Lady (done in the Company style) and William Daniell's Romantic work,The Indian Fruit Seller. The most obvious distinction is the manner in which clothing is treated in the images. While the Indian artist modestly covers every inch of his subject’s body, revealing only her hands and feet, Daniell portrays a semi-nude woman, her fecundity implied in the baring of her breasts and in her lush, garden setting.
The claim made by most scholars—that Company style art was painted for European patrons—becomes muddled when examining Portrait of a Lady. If Indian artists were concerned with creating images for a specifically British taste, then it is unclear why this anonymous Indian artist portrays a fully-clothed (as opposed to a semi-nude) woman; to further complicate this question, it is probable that in his own portraits of semi-nude, Indian women Daniell is drawing on a tradition of Indian iconography that depicts voluptuous and naked divine spirits. (This issue will be explored further in specific reference to William Daniell's work.) In contrast, Portrait of a Lady may be grounded in a Mughal-Islamic tradition in which women were covered in purdah. We might conclude, then, that Daniell is less concerned with British aesthetic, and that the Company artist is more concerned with Mughal aesthetic. Finally, by contrasting these two images it becomes apparent that the Company style enacts a fluid and complex classification that often reveals elements of agency, hybridity, and transculturation.
Archer, Mildred. Company Paintings: Indian Paintings of the British Period. London: Victoria and Albert Museum in association with Mapin Publishing, 1992. Print.
Bailey, Alexander Gauvin. “The Indian Conquest of Catholic Art.” Art Journal 57.1 (1998): 24-30. Print.
Chandra, Moti. The Technique of Mughal Painting. Lucknow: U. P. Historical Society, 1949. Print.
Chandra, Pramod. Indian Miniature Painting; the Collection of Earnest C. and Jane Werner Watson. Madison: Elvehjem Art Center; distributed by U of Wisconsin P, 1971. Print.
Mitter, Partha. Indian Art. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001. Print.
Sutton, Thomas. The Daniells; Artists and Travellers. London: Bodley Head, 1954. Print.
Tarlo, Emma. Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996. Print.
Vajrcrya, Gautamavajra. Watson Collection of Indian Miniatures at the Elvehjem Museum of Art: A Detailed Study of Selected Works. Madison: Elvehjem Museum of Art, 2002. Print.