The Flemish artist F. Balthazar Solvyns lived in Calcutta from 1791 to 1803 and produced a remarkable series of etchings portraying the people of Bengal in their life and culture. First published in Calcutta in 1796 and redone for a more elaborate Paris edition, Les Hindous, 1808-12, some 300 etchings, with their accompanying descriptions, provide a rich and detailed ethnographic survey of India of two hundred years ago. With sections on caste occupations, household servants, festivals, religious mendicants, and musical instruments, Solvyns includes a portrayal of the boats of Bengal in 36 etchings.
In Boats of Bengal, Hardgrave reproduces these prints, together with Solvyns's descriptive text, and a commentary on each plate.
Robert L. Hardgrave, Jr., is the Temple Professor of the Humanities at the University of Texas at Austin. He is, with ethnomusicologist Stephen M. Slawek, author of Musical Instruments of North India: Eighteenth Century Portraits by Baltazard Solvyns (Manohar). Boat of Bengal, like the earlier volume on musical instruments, is part of a larger project, A Portrait of the Hindus: Balthazar Solvyns Life and work that will reproduce the complete collection of the Solvyns's etchings, with commentaries on each and introductory chapters on Solvyns's life and work. Hardgarve has also published articles on Solvyns's protrayal of suttee and on his etchings on the Sikhs.
The Boats of Bengal is part of a larger project on the life and work of the Flemish artist Francois Balthazar Solvyns, whose portrayal of the people and culture of Bengal is among the richest visual records we have of India in the late eighteenth century.
Solvynswas born in Antwerp in 1760, the youngest child of a family of prosperous merchants. Growing up in a city with the rich artistic tradition of Rubens, Jordeans, and Van Dyck, the young Solvyns began the study of art at Antwerp's Academic des Beaux-Arts, where in 1772, he received the first prize in drawing. At the Academic, he pursued studies in the new Neo-classical curriculum. In 1778, Solvyns went to Paris to become the pupil of Francois-Andre Vincent (1746- 1816), one of the major figures of the Neo-classical movement. While in Paris, Solvyns came to know the work of the French marine painter Claude Joseph Vernet (1714-1789), who had been commissioned by Louis XV to paint a series of the ports of France.
Whether influenced by Vernet or by exposure to the tradition of marine painting in the Low Countries, Solvyns, on his return to Antwerp, soon embarked upon a career as a marine painter. In 1780, when only 20 years old, he accepted a commission from the Governor- General of the Austrian Netherlands to paint the port of Ostend. Solvyns now on his way to becoming the "Belgium Vernet" soon secured another commission to paint the port of Antwerp. Both the Ostend and Antwerp paintings were hung in the Laeken palace, outside Brussels, where Solvyns had accepted a post on appointment by his new patrons, the Archduchess Marie-Christina and her husband Albert, the Governors-General. In 1789, at the time of the Brabant revolution, Marie-Christina and Albert fled to Vienna, taking the paintings with them. The Ostend painting is known to have been in the Albertina palace in Vienna until 1919, but it along with the Antwerp painting are now lost, and the Ostend work survives only as a print, "View of the City and Port of Os tend," engraved by RobertDaudet (1737-1824) after the Solvyns painting, and published in Paris in 1784.
There are records of other marine paintings from the 1780s by Solvyns. In 1789, he joined a group of artists for a public exhibition in Antwerp, showing three oil paintings and drawing-all marine subjects. The whereabouts of these pictures-or whether they have survived-is today unknown. Indeed, the only Solvyns painting known to survive from this period is "The View of a Dutch Port," signed and dated 1787, in Antwerp's National Maritime Museum.
There are few accounts of Solvyns's life, and the earliest, published soon after his death in 1824, contains inaccuracies that were repeated in subsequent entries in various biographical dictionaries. Among the most glaring of these errors and anomalies is the report that Solvyns fled in 1789 with his patron Marie-Christina to Vienna and remained there until her death, after which he sailed to India. Another oft-repeated mistake has Solvyns, in sailing with Home Popham, making charts of the Red Sea. What we do know is that during the political unrest in the Low Countries in 1789-1790 and without his former patronage, Solvyns, at the age of 30, made the decision to go to India to seek his fortune.
The voyage to India usually took some four to eight months, depending upon the time of year, prevailing trade winds, and possible mishaps-with the return voyage typically taking somewhat longer. Solvyns set sail from Ostend in July 1790 aboard the Etrusco, owned and under the command of Captain Home Popham. He arrived in Calcutta eight months later, in March 1791.
During the twelve years that Solvyns lived in Calcutta, he struggled to find his place as an artist and a position in society. He found success in neither. Commissions were not forthcoming, and he was compelled to offer his services in teaching painting, restoring pictures, and-for Stuart & Co., Coachmakers-decorating coaches and palanquins. He did, however, secure commissions for several pain tings, and among those surviving-or known-are the six marine paintings. Three (each oil on panel) are in museums: "The Charlotte of Chittagong," 1792, in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich; "Unidentified British East Indiaman at Calcutta," 1794, and "The Launching of Camel Gillett's Armed Merchantman in Calcutta Harbor;" c. 1798, both in the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts. The "Launching' portrays the ship and the rich life of the Calcutta docks, with Solvyns himself standing with his sketchbook.
Other Solvyns marine paintings done in India are with dealers or in private collections. "Calcutta From Below Fort William Looking North,” an unsigned oil on canvas and attributed to Solvyns, is a smaller version of a painting, signed and dated 1792, which was damaged and subsequently destroyed. "The Marquis Cornwallis," 1793 (oil on panel), was probably commissioned by the ship's builders. The ship went on to become famous in the history of Australia. After its construction in Calcutta, the ship went to Cork, Ireland, and from there transported Irish political prisoners to Australia in 1795, only to confront mutiny on the voyage. The painting came onto the market from a private collection in the 1990s with the sale of the ship's log. At least one other Solvyns marine painting remains in a private collection.
Despite his prominent Antwerp family background, Solvyns-a foreigner-remained marginal to British society in Calcutta. He was never invited to become a member of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, founded by the great Orientalist Sir William Jones, whom Solvyns so admired. Indeed, the records of the Society for the period of Solvyns's residence in Calcutta indicate that he never even once attended its meetings. Moreover, Solvyns-always burdened by financial pressure-lived on the margin of the European quarter, in the area of old central Calcutta that abutted the native quarter, "Black Town," to the north. His very "marginality," both socially and physically, may have been critical in opening up the artist to the experience of India around him, but Solvyns was naturally curious and, as an artist, acutely observant. His own exclusion from the elite European circles in which he would have loved to move, however, may well have deepened his sympathy for India and for Indians.
Solvyns's genuine interest in the people around him was reinforced by an intellectual background in the Enlightenment. He brought its "Histoire naturelle" perspective and commitment to truth to the project that was to consume his life-a portrayal of the Hindus.
In 1794, Solvyns placed an advertisement in the Calcutta Gazette, announcing his intention to publish "A Collection of Two Hundred and Fifty Coloured Etchings Descriptive of the Manners, Customs, and Dresses of the Hindus." It was the most ambitious publishing venture yet undertaken in India. The collection was published in Calcutta in a few copies in 1796, and then in greater numbers in 1799. Divided into twelve parts, the first section, with 66 prints, depicts "the Hindoo Casts, with their professions." Following sections portray servants, costumes, means of transportation (carts, palanquins, and boats), modes of smoking, fakirs, musical instruments, and festivals.
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