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Art Through Time: A Global View

The Natural World Art: Black Stork in a Landscape

» India, Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh

Black Stork in a Landscape

Black Stork in a Landscape
Artist / Origin: India, Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh
Region: South and Southeast Asia
Date: ca. 1780
Period: 1400 CE – 1800 CE
Material: Watercolor on European paper
Medium: Painting
Dimensions: H: 29 ¾ in . (75.6 cm.), W: 21 ½ in. (54.6 cm.)
Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Credit: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Louis E. and Theresa S. Seley Purchase Fund for Islamic Art and Rogers Fund

Black Stork in a Landscape represents a school of Indian art known as “Company Painting” that arose in the late eighteenth century.

Company Painting takes its name from the East India Company, the officials of which were its first patrons. As British employees of the East India Company began relocating to India, often with their families, they desired images of their new surroundings. Although some British artists fulfilled this need, it was primarily Indian artists who met the demand and came to be known as Company School painters. Some of the images produced by these artists were sent back to England as a record of life in India. More often, however, they stayed in the possession of the long-term British residents who commissioned them.

The Company School was not defined by one style. Rather, local artistic traditions influenced the paintings produced in different cities throughout India. The degree to which artists incorporated Western techniques into their work also varied. The detailed rendering of the stork in this image, for instance, has precedents in earlier Mughal studies of animals, while the receding landscape points to European influence, as does shading and the use of muted watercolors in place of brilliantly colored gouaches.

The images produced by Company artists for British patrons ranged from portraits and images of Indian dress and customs to scenes of the landscape and images of specific flora and fauna. The documentation of plants and animals was in keeping with similar practices in Europe. Such studies contributed to the growing interest in natural history that accompanied the scientific revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The documentation of the natural world was a means of gaining knowledge about a new habitat. They also reflected European colonial impulses. The collection of samples from the environment—whether specimens or reproductions—might be understood as an implicit assertion of possession.

Expert Perspective
Romita Ray, Assistant Professor of Art History, Syracuse University

“Company School artists, I think, actually all were trained in Indian techniques—they were all established artists already. And they do study, of course, also the European techniques. And each individual artist comes up with an individual hybrid style, so that’s the beauty of it—that they are trained in the Indian techniques, they are trained in the Indian methods of composition, whether it’s Mughal or otherwise, and then they are able to take that as well as adopt the European lens. And presumably they were shown prints or paintings that were available through the hands of their British patrons and they’re able to craft this new style, so to speak. So there’s this wonderful fusion of styles in their work.

Natural history subjects would range from plants to animals, basically. So you’ve got an interest in specimens of different types and, of course, the more exotic they are, the more interesting they are. It’s a huge subject insofar as not just the Company School, but also in terms of landscape painting in India when the British arrive and when other European artists are also there. And it’s a mixture of, shall we say, aesthetic pleasure as well as scientific scrutiny.”

Additional Resources

Chakraverty, Anjan. Indian Miniature Painting. New Delhi: Roli, 2005.

Dehejia, Vidya. Indian Art. London: Phaidon, 1997.

Sardar, Marika. “Company Painting in Nineteenth-Century India.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site. (October 2004).

Schiebinger, Londa, and Claudia Swan, eds. Colonial Botany: Science, Commerce, and Politics in the Early Modern World. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

Smith, Pamela. Merchants and Marvels: Commerce, Science, and Art in Early Modern Europe. London: Routledge, 2001.

Tobin, Beth Fowkes. Picturing Imperial Power: Colonial Subjects in Eighteenth-Century British Painting. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.

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