Baltazard Solvyns in Bengal
Bikaner House, 31 July – 20 August 2021
Among all attempts by foreign artists to present a complete view of India, none is so focused on people as the work of François Baltazard Solvyns, who lived in Calcutta for a decade starting in 1791. While picking up odd jobs, he embarked on an ambitious project to produce a comprehensive survey of ‘the manners, customs, and dresses, of the Hindus’. The first edition contained 250 hand-coloured etchings and was published by Solvyns between 1796 and 1799.
Solvyns published a second, enlarged edition of 288 coloured plates in Paris during 1808-12 that he called Les Hindoûs, which was differently arranged in four volumes, with bilingual descriptive text in French and English. Curated by Giles Tillotson, ‘The Hindus: Baltazard Solvyns in Bengal’ is an exhibition of the complete set of the Paris edition of the artist’s etchings, and presents an encyclopaedic vision of the people and customs of eastern India at the end of the eighteenth century.
The etchings are printed in colour and hand embellished using a small cloth bundle called a poupée (doll). After printing, Solvyns applied further colour washes by hand to finish each work. This lengthy and laborious process contributed to the high cost of the publication, which in turn hampered its prospects of achieving sales. Despite support from the French government—through l’Institut de France, to which the work is dedicated—Les Hindoûs did not meet with the critical acclaim or commercial success that its creator expected. Indeed, the relative failure of the project to reward the time, industry and passion that Solvyns poured into it, is heart-breaking, especially as it came after a series of setbacks.
Modern audiences may see his work differently. It is an outsider’s view, for sure. But it is an extraordinarily detailed and intimate portrait of a people at a given moment in history. He includes representatives of every profession and every level of Indian society; he depicts festivals and sacred rites; and he shows us aspects of material culture, such as the plethora of musical instruments that were then in common use. Every person and object is seen very closely, with an informed and inquisitive eye, and is shown, sometimes with wit, sometimes with a melancholy grandeur. Other artists who copied and plagiarised his images, made them simpler and more attractive, and they sold better than he did. Solvyns appeals to us today precisely because he was a challenging artist, who did not seek to delight us, but to confront us, to engage us in a discussion about the world he shared here for a while.