Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 31, 2003
Robert L. Hardgrave Boats of Bengal: Eighteenth-Century Portraits by Balthazar Solvyns New Delhi: Manohar Publishers and Distributors, 2000. 134 pp.; some b/w ills. Cloth $34.00 (8173043582)
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Focusing on the etchings of boats by Balthazar Solvyns (1760–1824), Robert Hardgrave, who is preparing a book on this artist’s life and work, demonstrates how revealing these prints are as expressions of the materiality of daily lives. The book is filled not only with boat lore and facts, but also with information about social order, class and caste (the Muga Chara type of boat, for example, is used by the lower classes to celebrate marriage), tribal identities, pirates (the Arakanese, called Maghs, from Burma), and the economics of eighteenth-century river trade in India. Hardgrave’s wealth of knowledge about boats and their structures, uses, names, and types are fitted within the context of travel and transportation of goods and people (travelers, merchants, pleasure-seekers) along the eastern coast of India and inland through the Ganges and Hugli rivers. In the late eighteenth century, boats were the primary means of transit and generated a highly inflected set of vessels built in India, many suited to specific tasks and goods, to various journey lengths and geographies, to methods of movement (sails, paddles, oars), to specific weather or water depths and tides, and to work or pleasure. A few boats from outside Calcutta are included, such as examples from Orissa or Sri Lanka.

Solvyns was a Belgian artist, academy-trained in Antwerp and also in Paris under François-Andre Vincent. In Paris, inspired by Claude Joseph Vernet’s marine paintings of French ports, he became a marine painter, eventually called the “Belgium Vernet.” He exhibited in Antwerp in the 1780s and successfully worked for royal patrons until the Brabant revolution in 1789 caused his patrons to flee to Vienna. Solvyns, then, at the age of thirty, traveled to India, where he lived and worked in Calcutta for twelve years, doing various kinds of paintings, including decorating coaches. He was never financially successful either in his art or social contacts, always marginal in the European community and living close to Calcutta’s native quarter, though he did have some commissions for marine paintings.

Nurtured in the neoclassical tradition, Solvyns was a product of eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophy and epistemology. He created a multivolume work and the first ethnographic survey, entitled A Collection of Two Hundred and Fifty Coloured Etchings Description of the Manners, Customs, and Dresses of the Hindoos; it was the kind of encyclopedic ambition and systematic natural-history classification that characterized the Enlightenment’s cosmological philosophy and engagement with new cultures through colonization and seafaring. This work was published in Calcutta in 1796, and then again in 1799, in twelve parts; it includes more than sixty prints of native people in their professional castes. Among the many people and objects depicted in the etchings (e.g., musical instruments, servants, costumes) were means of transportation. Lacking the picturesque and displaying simple technique, Solvyns’s volumes failed financially. Leaving India in 1803, he later republished the works in Paris for a 288-plate, four-volume folio edition between 1808 and 1812. These later prints, some of which were variations on the Calcutta versions, are the ones Hardgrave reproduces in the book, with one visual comparison with a Calcutta work. The colored etchings had both English and French texts and a dedication accepted by the Institut de France, but again failed to sell in Paris. Solvyns returned to Antwerp in 1814 when the Netherlands became a kingdom, and he was appointed Captain of the Port, painting a large work of the King William I’s arrival in Antwerp that also included the artist’s self-portrait.

Hardgrave provides many quotes from Solvyns, who cites his intentions to show knowledge through careful observation, “to delineate every object with the most minute accuracy” (4), an Enlightenment article of faith. The simplicity and detail of the etchings attest to the artist’s careful attention to the empirical world, but surely the figures on the boats, some in rough seas, and in a few cases quotations from other paintings both indicate an attempt to present some drama for audience appeal. For this book, Hardgrave has selected works of thirty-three boats; an etching of a variety of vessels intended, in Solvyns’s own words, “as a sufficient proof of the superiority of our naval architecture over that of the Indian nations, and particularly the Hindoos” (125); and two etchings of the double plates depicting storms, which introduced each section of the Paris edition: one of Bengal’s violent spring northwesters and another depicting the bore (a sudden influx of tide into a river or strait). In many prints, Solvyns employs the marine-painting convention of showing the boat in the foreground with sails down, and a version or two of a similar vessel in the background with sails up, so that we can see a ship in its various working states and profiles. In the case of the Bangles, a large rice boat, Hardgrave includes an example of a Calcutta etching very different from its Paris counterpart. The author describes other instances of differences between the two sets of etchings and among the colors in other works. It is unfortunate that there are no colored etchings in this book to give a sense of what they actually looked like, except for the rather blurred print reproduced on the book jacket.

For each entry, Hardgrave starts with a quote from Solvyns about each boat and then comments on the artist’s remarks and on each etching. Both citations and analyses include information on the purposes of the boats, their structures, and the kinds of workers (Muslims, Hindoos, tribal connections) who used the crafts. Hardgrave offers explanations for the names of some types of boats and, when necessary, updates or corrects Solvyns’s or others’ accounts on the history or structure of the vessels. Drawing on eighteenth-century writers, including male and female travelers and viceroys, Hardgrave provides details on the wages of some of the crews and compares Solvyn’s etchings with works by his contemporaries, such as the painter William Hodges, all of which makes the technical information accessible and culturally rich.

The boats become metonymic of wider cultural systems, such as caste, labor, and leisure. Pleasure boats were extravagantly decorated (some with crocodile heads on the bows), expensive to hire, and required a small fleet of lesser boats that carried food, supplies, servants, washingmen, and bakers. These attendant crafts were also depicted in Solvyns’s etchings of pleasure boats. Hardgrave describes rituals that were inevitably enacted on these boats by their wealthy and aristocratic passengers—who sat in what part of the boat and smoked the hookah, if musicians played on the boat, the uniforms of the oarsmen, and the labor practices by which workers managed the boats and their own duties (singing, changing teams of rowers on the very fast boats).

This book obviously contributes to maritime history, but it also enhances social and economic histories of eighteenth-century Bengal and demonstrates how works of art can illuminate these intersecting histories without our forsaking interest in the artist’s own intellectual motives, conventions, styles, and episteme.

Julie Codell
Professor, School of Art, Arizona State University

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