The Tribune - Spectrum


, February 10, 2002
'Art and Soul

A female naturalist
B.N. Goswamy

Flower Study by Maria Sibylla Merian, end of 17th century.
Flower Study by Maria Sibylla Merian, end of 17th century.

EVER so often, when I am speaking somewhere or the other on Indian painting or painters of the past, someone or the other asks a question: do we know of any women painters? Since the question relates to the past, and not to the present where the situation is vastly different, the simple and straightforward answer is: "no, we do not". But, in truth, the matter is a little more complicated than that. For early texts speak of the art of painting being one of the many skills that an accomplished woman was expected to possess; and one trusts that this might well have been the case. In mythical tales, again, one encounters figures like Chitralekha, friend and confidante of Usha— in the Usha-Aniruddha story— who drew for her princess, memory-portraits of all eligible princes, thus enabling her to identify the one that she had dreamt of and fallen in love with. Occasionally, one also sees nayikas, or raginis, seated in their elegant chambers, minds focussed upon absent lovers, drawing their likenesses on sheets of paper. But, in actual fact, or memory, things seem to have been different. If one were to judge from the practice followed in households of traditional painters still active, women did have a role in the elaborate and complex process of painting, especially miniature painting, but it tended almost always to be of a subsidiary kind. Everyone speaks of their great skill at preparing materials, grinding pigments, filling in minor details, and the like. One also hears occasionally of how they would draw first sketches upon paper. And so on. But nothing can be securely attributed to a woman painter of the past; in fact, hardly any names of women painters surface at all. They remain elusive figures, flitting behind sheets of frosted glass, as it were.

Miniatures in another vein
January 13, 2002
Magic in the shadows
December 30, 2001
Remembering a painter of birds
December 16, 2001
The mysteries of silk
December 2, 2001
The Night of the Museums
November 18, 2001
Arts in the time of crisis
November 4, 2001
The Nizams and their jewels
October 21, 2001
Reviving a languishing craft
October 7, 2001
Buddhism in Australia
September 23, 2001
Excavating the City of David
August 26, 2001
The threshold of renunciation
August 12, 2001
The Mountain Goddess of Japan
July 29, 2001
The arts of heraldry
July 15, 2001
The ‘timeless’ Indian shawl
July 1, 2001

Interestingly, things in pre-modern West seem to have been no different. If one were to take the centuries before the twentieth into account, once again, hardly any names surface. One knows of women patrons, as indeed one does in India, but no painters. In the second half of the 19th century, when the Impressionists were active in Europe, there are a few, odd names: Mary Cassatt, an American who spent many years in Paris, for instance; or Berthe Morisot, friend to so many Impressionists. But, effectively, it is only in the 20th century, and that too when the century had progressed some years, that women painters and sculptors started climbing on to the stage. At least visibly. One would like to believe that, at the amateur level at least, women practiced these arts, but professionally the field seems to have been occupied only by men. It is all a little difficult to understand; at the very least, intriguing. Some attempts are being made by scholars in the west to dig somewhat deeper into earlier times than has been done till now, and some little success seems to come their way. A colleague in San Diego told me last year, for instance, that his sister was doing a doctoral dissertation on a woman painter who seems to have been active, professionally, in post-Renaissance Italy. But the fruits of this entire 'archaeological' endeavour remain scanty still. There is a world of silence out there.

It is in this context that I was pleasantly surprised to find, in a sales catalogue, an account of the work of a European woman painter of the late 17th century, which was coming up for auction: Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717). There are not too many facts to report, but one knows that she was the daughter of a well-known German topographical artist, Matthaeus Merian, and step-daughter of the Dutch still-life painter, Jacob Marrell. Remarkably— for this was against the grain of the times— Maria became known, in her own right and in her own life-time, as a female painter and naturalist of distinction, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Her artistic career began as a painter of flowers, and her first published work, an album of engravings of flower studies, came out in 1680 under the title, Neues Blumenbuch. Studies of plants and flowers, 'herbals' is how they are generally called, had come into their own in Europe by this time, as much for scientific as for artistic reasons. One knows this well, even in India, for studies of flowers here, the brilliant work of painters like Mansur at the Mughal court, included— were sometimes informed by an awareness of the European work which had come into our land. But, in Europe, herbals had become a genre of their own, eliciting great interest and admiration. Often, the more exotic the plant or flower rendered, the greater was the interest it evoked. Maria Merian seems to have known this well, for her flower studies, meticulously executed and painted with feeling as they were, are filled with exotic detail. The work she seems to have done, at least for this publication, was in what is called 'counter-proof', each engraving then painstakingly coloured by hand. Maria's work did not however stay frozen at this point. For, from painting flower studies, she moved quickly on to painting studies of insects, thus earning wide recognition as a 'founder of entomology'. She seems to have been an uncommon woman, determined to eke out a place for the likes of her. For one also knows that, in some of the late albums of engravings she produced, she associated her own daughter when it came to colouring them with hand. Dorothea Maria was the daughter's name.

A peacock's feather

I do not remember each detail, but I am tempted all the same to refer here to a charming passage from an early Indian tale to which Coomaraswamy - who else? - drew our attention, a long time ago. This, because it refers to a woman painter. A painter, it seems, was commissioned by a raja to paint the walls of his palace. While the painter worked, his daughter used to bring him his mid-day meal each day. One day, when she came, the daughter did not find her father at his usual place of work. So, she waited; while sitting idle and for whiling her time away, however, she picked up her father's brush and, using the pigments that he had left lying around, she painted a peacock's feather on the shiny palace floor. And then, her father still not back, she left.

Soon afterwards, the story goes, the raja happened to walk into that part of the palace. And, finding a peacock's feather 'lying' on the floor, he bent down to pick it up. In the process, he broke his fingernail, it seems!