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A European Concoction

Artist/maker unknown, Indian

Made in Udaipur, Rajasthan, Mewar Region, India, Asia

c. 1760

Opaque watercolor, gold, and silver-colored paint on paper

Image: 10 1/4 × 14 3/8 inches (26 × 36.5 cm) Sheet: 10 3/4 × 15 inches (27.3 × 38.1 cm)

Curatorial Department:
South Asian Art

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
125th Anniversary Acquisition. Alvin O. Bellak Collection, 2004

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Images of Europeans were popular in eighteenth-century Mewar, but the Indian artists who drew these subjects were not always kind to them. This painter was downright devilish. On the left, two long-nosed, leering men huddle together, one wearing an English-style wig and smoking a pipe. A child and a dog seem, oddly, to be climbing up the second man, who has lost both his wig and his dignity. The bony figure on the right seems to be giving a tremendous shriek through his toothy mouth; a snake has wound around his neck and bites his chin! Miniature animals prowl and play on the carpet-but are they alive or are they woven into the design? The scene is a fantastic concoction of elements copied from different European sources, quite possibly including the satirical engravings of the English artist William Hogarth.

Additional information:
  • PublicationIntimate Worlds: Indian Paintings from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection

    In India, foreigners attract much attention, not all of it benevolent. Beginning with the Mughals, Indian artists have often looked at European figures with a bemused eye, finding them to have curious faces, exotic clothing and hats, and sometimes strange customs. In most cases, their early encounters with Europeans were not with actual flesh-and-blood individuals, but only with images of them, normally in the form of prints and paintings (see Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2004-149-14). The cultural distancing inherent in this second-hand exposure was compounded by the conventions of an alien visual tradition, which employs shadows where few Indian artists would ever conceive of using them, and iconography that defies immediate comprehension.

    In Mewar, homemade images of foreigners became something of a minor genre from the early eighteenth century, a trend apparently inspired by the Dutch East India Company trading mission led by Johan Ketelaar in 1711-13.1 Many of the subsequent paintings of foreigners depict single standing figures dressed in Dutch fashion, culminating in a broad-brimmed and plumed hat. The general effect of these images is one of exotic dandies with unfamiliar, but still unremarkable faces amplified by luxurious wigs.2

    This compelling painting is no such neutral display of fashion, but a bizarre image of three quirky characters lounging on a wildly animated carpet. The pair of figures huddled together at left set the jarring tone of the work. Their brightly colored Indian-style robes contrast strongly with each other, but even more so with the long-nosed, light-skinned faces emerging unexpectedly from them. One figure wears an English-style wig of the eighteenth century, but his companion, having abandoned his own wig as well as the decorum it demands, exposes a large, close-cropped pate. Both their expressions, probably originally mirthful, have degenerated into comical leers, an effect carried by their toothy grins, clownishly outlined lips, onion-like arcs of flesh around the eyes, and sidelong glances. Even the hands seem odd. The pliant fingers of the bewigged figure’s left hand wrap about the thin stem of a long European pipe, while those of the right contort into a peculiar pinched gesture resting against his companion’s forearm. The larger man’s right hand comes from anatomical limbo to abut his friend’s left hand, thus reciprocating the light embrace. His left index finger is extended to press the opposite side of his nose, a gesture that suggests the use of snuff.

    However perplexing this giddy scene is to this point, it is made positively weird by the third adult, who leans forward casually but simultaneously opens his mouth wide to emit a blood-curdling shriek. The provocation for this cry is not apparent at first, but turns out to be a snake that has risen between the figure’s exposed ribs, wrapped itself about his scrawny neck, and unleashed its fangs on his chin. Linked to this figure by glance and color are a child and his dog, both implausibly clambering up the pleated robe of the central figure. Around this curious conglomeration of figures is an eddy of tiny creatures. These animals--prowling cheetahs, running deer, entwined tigers and dragons, and assorted goats--nominally pass as motifs on a pictorial carpet, but they are rendered much too three-dimensionally and are interspersed too freely among rocks and lilliputian vessels for anyone to believe for more than a moment that such a carpet--indeed, such a scene--ever existed in India.

    Instead, we recognize that the painting is a fantastic concoction of elements drawn from disparate European sources. The intertwined figures almost certainly entered the creative mix as one unit, and the child and dog as another, a fact that would explain their incongruous physical relationship. The screaming figure is surely an independent motif, as can be demonstrated by the existence of two separate paintings of the same snake-bitten figure.3 Both these works offer a bust-length view of a man facing left and dressed in European clothes, and both naturally depict a snake biting his chin, for it seems that this calamity was always understood as the pretense for the opportunity to render a face contorted by pain. In all three examples, the artists fabricate such an expression with cleft jowls, bared teeth, and a coiled tongue, but they deviate widely from the common model in the arrangement of the hair about the ear and in the very idiosyncratic handling of the facial modeling. One of these comparative images is inscribed with the date of 1764, which places the three variations to the 1760s.

    The sources of this inspired hodgepodge remain to be determined. The two figures to the left resemble many a character in the engravings of the eighteenthcentury English artist William Hogarth and his contemporaries, while the anguished figure may be derived from studies of physiognomy and expression. The meaning of this strange ensemble is equally enigmatic, but there is no mistaking the satirical bent that the anonymous artist has visited upon this group of Englishmen. John Seyller, from Intimate Worlds: Indian Painting from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection (2001), pp. 154-155.

    1. See Andrew Topsfield, “Ketelaar’s Embassy and the Farangi Theme in the Art of Udaipur,” Oriental Art, n.s., vol. 30, no. 4 (1984-85), pp. 350-67.
    2. See, for example, ibid., figs. 8-11.
    3. The two unpublished paintings are in the Goenka Collection, and the Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum, Hyderabad.