Art Through Time: A Global View
Converging Cultures Art: Portrait of East India Company Official (probably William Fullerton)
In 1600, Queen Elizabeth I granted a royal charter to the newly formed East India Company, giving the company exclusive trading rights to India and the Far East.
Over the next two hundred and fifty years, officials associated with the company became wealthy through trade with India and gained tremendous political influence there. Although originally rooted in mercantile activity, after the 1750s, British power in India increasingly came through military action. Contact between the British and Indians, however, was limited neither to the marketplace nor the battlefield.
In the latter part of the eighteenth century, members of the East India Company who had settled abroad began to commission native artists to create paintings that depicted various aspects of their new environment, including indigenous flora and fauna, historic sites, and local people. Although these works varied stylistically according to region, they frequently melded European aesthetics with traditional Indian approaches to art; the artists who created them came to be known collectively as the “Company School.”
This work is a portrait by Company School artist Dip Chand, who was active in Murshidabad. The administrative capital of Bengal, Murshidabad was a commercial center and a British stronghold. Nevertheless, traditional local painting styles remained dominant in the region. The sitter for this portrait was a Company official, likely William Fullerton, a Scottish surgeon who resided in India from 1744 to 1766. Fullerton was what his British contemporaries would have called a nabob. A Hindi word originally used for Mughal governors, in the eighteenth century, nabob came to refer generally to any European who had made a fortune in the East. In Britain, the term took on a pejorative connotation and was used derisively to describe countrymen who had become too “Indianized.”
In this portrait, Fullerton employs an Indian artist working primarily in the Indian style. The painting shows him fully immersed in the lifestyle of his new homeland. However, a colonial mentality seems to temper the notion of benign cultural acclimation. Fullerton, still dressed in British garb, is waited upon by Indian servants. While the others stand, he sits—a position indicative of rank according to European etiquette. Finally, his pose appropriates the profile view often reserved for emperors and princes in Indian imagery, while simultaneously conjuring associations with European depictions of authority rooted in classical antiquity.
Expert Perspective: Romita Ray, Assistant Professor of Art History, Syracuse University
The British arrive in India in the early part of the seventeenth century, at least according to records, and they’re primarily merchants. They come to trade. We have records of them in the Mughal emperor’s court at the time. And over time, they build what is called the East India Company, which is chartered by Queen Elizabeth and it’s given the rights to trade with India. So that’s when we see them arrive. And they start establishing their presence in very key areas of India because they know that they have to compete with the Portuguese who are already there. They certainly have to compete with the Dutch. Over time, they also have to compete with the French.
So initially, we see a mercantile body. Then, over time, that develops by the eighteenth century into a more aggressive body that actually has its own army, that does acquire land, that protects its rights in India. By the early nineteenth century, we begin to see, especially, a greater interest in governance. Now this begins, of course, in the eighteenth century in the sense that they learn specific languages which allow for them to understand the judiciary system, for instance. They also understand how to transact with merchants. In order to grab the markets they have to have some measure of control over the laws, for instance, that rule those markets.
The name Company School is associated with the East India Company. There are many British artists who arrive, some of them are professionals, some amateur, but this was specifically used for Indian artists who are commissioned by various administrators of the company, of the East India Company.
Before the British arrive there’s such a rich tradition of painting already in India. With Company School artists, all were probably trained in Indian techniques. They were all established artists already. And they do study, of course, also the European techniques—I’m not just going to restrict myself to British because the British scene fits into the larger scene of European ideas about perspective and depth, etc. And so they do look at that as well. So there’s this wonderful fusion of styles in their work.
First of all, we’ve got much more of a flattened perspective sometimes with the Company School artists, which harkened back to their Indian training where the idea of depth is handled very differently than what we find, let’s say, in a European composition. It’s handled in a more abstract manner. Even though it’s flattened, we still have a sense of what would be in the foreground space, and the mid-ground, and the background space. You don’t necessarily have the three-point perspective, but you still have a sense of depth over there. Some may call them very stylized, you know, that’s a word that oftentimes gets used when we look at Company paintings because of that flattened depth as well as perspective. And that’s really the hallmark.
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“Encounters: The Meeting of Asia and Europe, 1500–1800 (September 23–December 5, 2004).” The Victoria and Albert Museum Web site. http://www.vam.ac.uk/vastatic/microsites/1196_encounters.
Pal, Pratapaditya, and Vidya Dehejia. From Merchants to Emperors: British Artists and India, 1757–1930. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press in association with the Pierpont Morgan Library and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1986.
Sardar, Marika. “Company Painting in Nineteenth-Century India.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/cpin/hd_cpin.htm (October 2004).