Colonialism is complicated. History shows that occupiers and subjects often engaged in a mutual, and uneasy, resentment and admiration. Rarely did it end well for either side.
When the British East India Company settled in India, eventually becoming a private occupying force by 1757, its officials reaped not only profits from India’s natural resources, but also from its aesthetic ones. In keeping with the way colonialism often goes, a revolutionary show, Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company (through April 19), has been mounted at London’s Wallace Collection. As curator William Dalrymple writes in the accompanying catalogue, “Today it is almost impossible to find any major gallery within Britain that still puts on show a significant collection of art connected in any way with the former British Empire.” But as he emphasizes, once the artworks, mostly watercolors, come “to be understood to be the result of a fruitfully catalytic act of patronage of great Indian artists by admiring British patrons, it becomes possible to appreciate these unusually beautiful paintings as an Indian art—indeed one of the most interesting and fecund phases of Indian painting.”
Dalrymple proves his point through his meticulously curated show of more than one hundred paintings by Indian masters, all commissioned by East India Company officials in the late eighteenth and mid nineteenth centuries. The Company’s civil servants, diplomats, governors, judges, and their wives, along with visiting British artists and intellectuals of the time, recognized, celebrated, and encouraged India’s native aesthetic resources. These foreign residents, albeit members of a private company (one that came to control half of the world’s trade and maintain a private army larger than Britain’s), so admired the tradition of native Mughal painters and those from other regions of India that they commissioned artists to make works for their homes and offices. The resulting depictions of the flora and fauna of India, of native peoples and elements of daily life, represent “one of the great moments of genius in Indian art,” Dalrymple emphasizes.
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WRITTEN BY DAVID MASELLO
This story appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of MILIEU.