Late 18th-century Calcutta might seem an improbable destination for a little-known Flemish marine artist. But during just over 12 years of residence in Calcutta around 1800, Francois Balthazar Solvyns produced a series of etchings that would become perhaps the most remarkable documentation of traditional Hindu life - its occupations, festivals and customs - ever made. Les Hindoûs , first published in Paris in four volumes, 1808-12, and here republished in a superb scholarly edition edited by Robert Hardgrave Jr, is a fascinating and definitive record of an artist's consuming desire to portray India realistically, rather than picturesquely.
Solvyns was born in 1760 of a prominent merchant family in Antwerp, a city rich in the artistic heritage of Rubens and Van Dyck. He trained in Austria and France as a neoclassical painter of sea subjects. Why he left Europe for Calcutta at the age of 30 is not known, but he may have been lured by its fame as one of the finest cities at the time, an inspiring and potentially lucrative place for European professional painters. John Zoffany, another Western artist who painted Indian scenes, was rumoured to have amassed an astounding Pounds 10,000 by the time he returned to England in 1789.
To safeguard its trade monopoly in India, the East India Company required non-British Europeans to obtain a resident's licence, but Solvyns seems to have managed to settle in Calcutta in 1791 without any formal letters of introduction. Yet he found it hard to enter Calcutta society. During his entire stay, he appears to have painted only seven seascapes and four landscapes showing the homes of East India Company officials. Despite considerable art training and a wealthy family background, he remained on the fringes, lodging in a house halfway between the European and native quarters of the city. Soon after his arrival, he took employment with the coach-makers Steuart & Co, which hired native artists to assist British craftsmen in the painting of authentic Indian motifs on "phaetons, buggies and palanquins". Through this, Solvyns picked up a knowledge of Bengali and Hindustani, but it must have been patchy, judging from his inconsistent spellings.
Although Sir William Jones had founded the pioneering Asiatic Society in Calcutta seven years earlier, Solvyns does not seem to have had much contact with it, despite a casual acquaintance with Jones himself. But he must have been aware of the burgeoning Orientalist movement in Europe and the society's keen scientific interest in the Orient. These may have been the subconscious inspirations behind his desire to produce his ambitious ethnological documentation of the Hindus.
In February 1794, Solvyns announced in the Calcutta Gazette his intention to produce A Collection of Two Hundred and Fifty Coloured Etchings: Descriptive of the Manners, Customs, and Dresses of the Hindoos . It was billed as a desirable acquisition, and subscribers were invited, according to the norm of the time, to pay in instalments to secure a copy. The contents of the 12 sections of the projected work were described in elaborate detail. It would show castes and professions, male and female costume, animals, buildings and temples, vehicles, modes of entertainment such as the "Bengalee Nautch" (dance), and pastimes such as smoking the hookah and playing games. Also to be depicted were religious sects, musical instruments, utensils, festivals and social rituals such as funerals.
Solvyns' great enterprise received neither critical acclaim nor financial reward because of his failure to portray India picturesquely; he did not fulfil the expectations of European art buyers and collectors. For most of his time in Calcutta he was compelled to earn a livelihood as an art restorer and instructor while continuing to record Hindu ways with unrelenting enthusiasm. When he finally sailed for Europe in 1803, he left India a frustrated man, yet with some hopes of resurrecting his career as an artist, now enriched by his exposure to the East.
Instead, he suffered further misfortunes. The French seized his ship and he was taken prisoner, mistakenly thought to be an Englishman, following the break-up of the Peace of Amiens. Some of his works are also supposed to have been destroyed in a violent storm during the voyage. When he eventually settled in Brussels and married an Englishwoman, 20 years his junior, he was briefly put under police surveillance as an English sympathiser. To add insult to injury, a book titled The Costume of Indostan - a pirated and truncated edition of his Calcutta album - surfaced with a cursory acknowledgement to Solvyns but without his permission or a royalty.
He thereupon resolved to republish his Indian studies in France.
The Paris edition of the first volume of Les Hindoûs , supervised by the fine arts division of the Institut de France, to which it was dedicated, differs considerably from the original Calcutta edition, with both new works and omissions of earlier published works. It was a sensation.
"Solvyns counted the most famous people in science, government and diplomacy as his subscribers," writes Hardgrave. But although it had received some financial support from the French government, the high standard of production made the book so expensive that he was forced to subsidise it with his wife's fortune and it was a financial disaster. This was compounded by the fact that French publishing was not in a sound state, with frequent bankruptcy among booksellers. Weighed down by financial worry, the 54-year-old Solvyns returned to Antwerp with his wife and became the captain of the port, with a respectable annual salary. Until his death ten years later, he remained keen on sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm for India.
Solvyns' work may not always stand up to anatomical and aesthetic scrutiny, but he was, undoubtedly, the first serious European ethnographic artist of India to give his figures "individual characters and (to) place them in time and space with narrative interest". His encyclopaedic paintings are intimate. He sets Hindu trades and occupations, such as a weaver at his loom or a potter at his wheel, in their natural environments. It was, surely, partly because of his marginal status in the British community in Calcutta that he was able to sympathise with the ordinary Bengalis around him.
As an unacknowledged tribute to his work, Solvyns was much plagiarised both by the Indian artists of the Company School who painted for Europeans in India and by European painters and engravers. The most unusual copy of his work shows suttee (widow-burning) and appears on gold-plated silver snuffboxes manufactured in China. "The relief on the top of the box depicts the woman leaping into the flames to the corpse of her husband, copied from Solvyns's Calcutta etchings," notes Hardgrave.
It is clear from the text written by Solvyns to accompany his drawings how sincere was his wish to record alien ways with accuracy. In the "Preliminary discourse" to volume one, he writes: "It was... necessary to reside among this people a sufficient time to have opportunities of observing them in all their habits of life, their customs, domestic manners, daily occupations, civil and religious ceremonies, amusements, feasts, games, etc; for it is in all these that the Hindoos are truly an original people differing essentially from all others." He then criticises other European artists: "It is owing to not having fulfilled these necessary conditions that the grater (sic) number of travellers have brought back to Europe such imperfect or false notions of the Hindoos and disgraced their works by such strange ideas and such ridiculous mistakes."
Despite his idiosyncratic spellings and period prose, Solvyns' notes are thorough, insightful and (whether intentionally or not) entertaining. For example: " The Bengal Dog is large: he can raise his ears but half way up. He feeds upon carrion and other disgusting matter, is dirty, subject to the mange, no ways attached to man, and upon the whole a very useless animal. The Hindoos express the baseness of his nature by the apellation of a Pariah Dog . They breed at Calcutta to such a degree that the police is frequently obliged to have them killed; sometimes to the number of two or three hundred in a day. It is only the Dog who goes alone in the streets, the others are always attended by a servant. The Bengal Dog seems to have an aversion for Europeans, and always barks when he meets them. His skin tanned furnishes a tolerably good leather. A black one of this species is seldom seen." Then he adds: "I was never able to meet in Bengal with the Dog known, in M. Buffons natural history, by the name of Bengalee Brae ." Solvyns was here probably calling the bluff of a fellow European naturalist.
This deeply researched and lavishly produced volume is a tribute to an artist who was more than an Orientalist. Unlike other European painters, Solvyns was not interested in romanticising India; he wanted to capture it warts and all. Hardgrave's ardent and meticulous scholarship has succeeded in restoring Solvyns' deserved reputation. With little primary material on the artist's life available, he skilfully constructs a credible account of an eventful career. The text is complemented by an up-to-date catalogue of Solvyns' work, and a good bibliography, glossary and index. A Portrait of the Hindus will be an essential purchase for all university libraries with any coverage of South Asia and will be cherished by lovers of fine book production.
Krishna Dutta is the author of Calcutta: A Cultural and Literary History .
A Portrait of the Hindus: Balthazar Solvyns and the European Image of India 1760-1824
Author - Robert L. Hardgrave Jr
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 568
Price - £65.00
ISBN - 0 19 522041 2