A large number of anonymous oils on religious and mythological themes began to emerge in Bengal in the late eighteenth–early nineteenth century from the French colony of Chandernagore and the Dutch colony of Chinsurah.
Variously called French or Dutch Bengal oils, they also came from other areas like Chitpur and Garanhata localities of Calcutta and thus came to be known as Early Bengal Oils.
Painted in indigenous styles on religious themes of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Krishna legend, other gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon, or popular myths and legends, these were unsigned and undated paintings. Following an indigenous painting idiom, the choice of iconography and colour palette was local—often considered strong or garish—but borrowed the Western technique of applying rich oils.
The artists evolved their own solutions to issues of perspective and volume, and incorporated other elements of European salon art of the time, such as drapery and backdrop of studio settings, also revealing the influence of contemporary Calcutta art schools.
Patronised by the urban elite, the genre began to suffer a decline by the late nineteenth–early twentieth century with the availability of cheaper and easily available lithographs and woodcuts on the same themes, oleographs from the newly established presses, and the increasing popularity of academic realist oils.
‘We can’t really pinpoint the artists behind the [Early Bengal] works, since the larger part of these paintings don’t carry signatures. And, there was a mystery surrounding them’
The first of the European artist-travellers, portraitist Tilly Kettle
arrives in Calcutta.
The Daniells publish their Twelve Views of Calcutta, 1786-88 .
William Hodges publishes his Select Views of India 1786-88 in
The Daniells publish their Oriental Scenery in six parts consisting of
144 coloured aquatints.
F. B. Solvyns publishes his Les Hindoûs containing 288 coloured
Late 18th Century
Advent of Company Painting in Calcutta, with an influx of traditional
painters from declining provincial courts like Lucknow, Murshidabad
and Patna, who now emulate European painting.
The first Bengali press is established in Calcutta by Biswanath Dev.
James Fraser publishes his Views of Calcutta.
School of Industrial Art (now Government School of Arts and Crafts)
is established in Calcutta.
Mid-end 19th Century
A number of oils on religious and mythological themes emerge from
various parts of Bengal painted by anonymous artists.
Variously referred to as French Bengal or Dutch Bengal because some
of these were produced in the French colony of Chandernagore and
the Dutch colony of Chinsurah, these are equally produced in the
Chitpur and Garanhata colonies of Calcutta, so they are best referred
to collectively as Early Bengal.
The gods and goddesses of Early Bengal oils bear a ‘distinct stamp
of life study and photo realism’, writes Tapati Guha-Thakurta in her
book, The Making of New ‘Indian’ Art, 1992. The female figures in
particular conform to ‘plump anatomies, oversized heads and drooling
eyes’. The figures are characterised by gaudy costumes and patterned
jewellery, bright colouring, heightened chiaroscuro effects and dark,
misty landscape setting and palatial backgrounds.
The ‘Manifestations’ series of 20th Century Indian Art, Editions VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI
DAG, New Delhi, 2011-14
‘The Art of Bengal’
DAG, New Delhi, Mumbai, and New York, 2012-16
‘Indian Landscapes: The Changing Horizon’
DAG, New Delhi, 2012
‘Indian Divine: Gods & Goddesses in 19th and 20th Century Modern Art’