by Natasha Eaton. Duke University Press, October 2013. 352 p. ill. ISBN 9780822354802 (pbk.), $29.95; ISBN 9780822354666 (cl.), $99.95.
Reviewed January 2014
Marty Miller, Art & Design Librarian, Louisiana State University, firstname.lastname@example.org
The relationship between art and empirical representation has been a long-established one. What happens when two empires and their artistic sensibilities meet head-on is the focus of Natasha Eaton’s book. The multifold consequences attendant with Britain’s colonization of India and the resulting ambivalence between British officials and Mughal ruling elites had a profound effect in both political and artistic spheres.
The mirror is frequently used as a metaphor for the way in which artists from both cultures interpreted each other’s art and culture, and then reflected that interpretation back at the viewer. The result is an image that is familiar, yet challenges the viewer’s long-held assumptions of their own identity. Artists from both cultures began to assimilate certain aspects of each other’s artistic conventions, in a sort of mimicry, to the point of making it hard to discern who was copying whom.
Empire building and visual representation went hand in hand for the British East India Company. Art was a powerful weapon of propaganda, whether used to assert their authority or deflect criticism. It also served as a networking tool with local Mughal leaders, who had a tradition of image gifts within its political structure.
The colonial disinterest in purchasing artwork beyond a few carefully-preserved prints forced artists from both sides to seek governmental and Mughal patrons. Those employed by the East India Company were obliged to bolster their employer’s power by aggrandizing its members as well as diverting attention from its corrupt administrative practices. To this end, painters like William Hodges appropriated the Mughal format for portraying powerful aristocrats in lavish settings, giving the sitter a “kingly” aspect meant to inspire respect rather than censure.
Interpretations of what constituted visual versus physical accuracy could be quite different. British artists romanticized Indian subjects and Anglicized them. Mughal artists, most of whom remain anonymous, placed British portraits in lavish surroundings after their own artistic traditions. Mughal artists defined a person’s character and status by a close examination of individual physical traits, while, in contrast, Flemish artist Balthasar Solvyns’ ethnographic studies sought to uncover an “ideal” physical model to represent each Indian social caste.
This is not a book for the novice art historian. Much of the language is quite specialized and therefore most useful for scholars who are familiar with this area of research. Given the depth and complexity of the subject matter, the number of illustrations seems rather limited. The text alludes to a number of specific paintings, sculptures, and other images, but many of these are not reproduced in the book. Some works are in private collections, which likely made obtaining reproduction permissions impossible. However, in a visual analysis of this caliber, more imagery might have served to clarify the author’s point of view.
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