People of Bengal: Coloured Etchings by F. Baltazard Solvyns

In collaboration with DAG

April 27 - June 29, 2024

On View at Special Project Space, Museum Plaza

10:00 am - 5:30 pm
Free entry

The exhibition “People of Bengal” presents etchings from a four-volume work titled ‘Les Hindoûs’ (in English, ‘The Hindus’) made by François Baltazard Solvyns, presenting an encyclopaedic vision of the people and customs of eastern India at the end of the eighteenth century. The artist arrived in Calcutta in 1791 and lived there for over a decade. His great work focuses on the people in Bengal and from neighbouring regions

Born and trained in Antwerp, Solvyns came to India in the hope of making his fortune. Working in Calcutta without permission from the board of the East India Company, he stayed on the margins of European society and engaged with all aspects of Indian life that teemed around him. 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, with 250 hand-coloured etchings, was published in Calcutta between 1796 and 1799. It was not commercially successful and Solvyns returned to Europe. Undaunted by his setback, in 1808-12 he published in Paris a second, enlarged edition, with bilingual descriptive text in French and English, and some additional plates, making a total of 288. The works showcased in the exhibition are taken from a complete set of the Paris version.

Audiences at the time did not respond warmly even to this improved edition. They were accustomed to the picturesque landscapes of Thomas and William Daniell, a vision of Indian scenery and magnificent buildings that was easy to appreciate. By comparison, Solvyns focuses on ordinary people and his images are often sombre in mood. Modern audiences may see his work differently. It is an outsider’s view, for sure, and his interpretation is often problematic. 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 riverboats and 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.

Some of the titles given by Solvyns on the prints are puzzling as he tried to render Bengali words phonetically into French. The exhibition captions include modern spellings along with those engraved on the plates, to help visitors identify them.

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