Raja Ravi Varma: Pioneer of Portraiture
In 1894, Raja Ravi Varma founded India's first oleography press, known as the Ravi Varma Oleographic and Chromolithographic Printing Workshop to make his artwork available and accessible to the public, revolutionizing the presence of art – typically relegated to the court or temple – in everyday homes. To help reproduce his paintings, Varma employed Fritz Schleischer, a German printer from Berlin, highly qualified in color lithographic printing to act as manager of the workshop.
Varma eventually sold the Press to Schleischer in 1903, at which stage the firm was renamed The Ravi Varma Fine Art Lithographic Works. Schleicher was known to have been a good businessman under whose management the press garnered a reputation for producing high quality prints and experimenting with innovations like adding metallic foil to create an effect that was reminiscent of the Tanjore style of painting. While he stayed true to Varma’s original vision for the Press, he expanded the press’s portfolio by securing jobs to print textbooks and photographs.
Schleischer had twelve children, the youngest, a daughter named Lottie, who had started her education in Berlin, but with the rise of Nazism, moved to a private school in Vienna. In 1941, Austria was in a state of political turmoil which forced her to move to India with her fiancé, Dr. Surendra Singh. Mrs. Lottie Schleischer Singh inherited a number of works from her father from where this magnificent portrait descends.
Extremely rare and exceptionally prized, this luminous portrait of a fine-looking woman exudes the radiance and sensitive rendering for which the artist is known. In 1979, the Indian government declared Raja Ravi Varma, an Indian National Heritage Artist, thus elevating all works by him to the status of National Art Treasures. He is considered one of India's greatest painters, and one of the founders of Indian Modern art.
Born in Kilimanoor , a small fiefdom in the princely state of Travancore (modern Kerala), Varma was educated at home and received his first lessons in art from his uncle, the artist Raja Raja Varma. At thirteen he moved to the court of Trivandrum, where he was exposed to the paintings in the royal collection- engravings of the Renaissance period, nineteenth century European Neo-classical paintings. Here Varma picked up his skills in watercolor, indigenous pigments and later, in oil, by merely watching court painter, Ramaswamy Naicker and a visiting artist, Theodore Jensen, at work.
The principles of European realist painting were introduced in India in the mid-19th century. There was a massive influx of British-born artists such as Tilly Kettle, James Wales, and Thomas Hickey who worked on commissions from various royal courts in India. These artists brought with them the latest trend called Victorian Academic Realism giving rise to genres such as oil portraits, naturalistic landscapes, academic nudes and history painting. They also brought tools of trade such as oil paints and canvas. This led to the establishment of art schools in Madras, Calcutta and Bombay. The aim of these schools was to wean Indian artists away from the prescribed and 'degenerate designs' of the old miniature painting convention and instead encourage them to paint the true likenesses of their subjects. The combined effect of these occurrences and influences was the emergence of a new class of Indian artists, chief amongst whom was Raja Ravi Varma. Yashodhara Dalmia enunciates, "While …Varma was the earliest Indian artist to paint in the Western method, his work could at the same time be considered pan-Indian.” (Y. Dalmia, The Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressives, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2001, p. 17). He developed a characteristic pictorial dialectal firmly rooted in the Western Academic Realism which he efficaciously reformed to suit his markedly Indian subjects.
Varma’s paintings can be broadly classified into portraits and compositions based on portraits and theatrical compositions based on myths and legends. Even though the latter are best known as the progenitor for the ubiquitous calendar art depicting Hindu Gods and Goddesses, found across India to this day, his mastery lay in portraiture where he brought poise and magnetism to even ordinary subjects. Of particular note is Varma's graceful representation of women, as we see in this portrait.
This work is highly indicative of Varma's fascination with elaborate gold and silver jewelry inlaid with gems and semi-precious stones, elegant, traditional costumes and indigenous coiffures. The crimson and russet saree with a richly embroidered gold zari brocade blouse is well coordinated with her jewelry and the flowers in her hair. The jewelry is depicted with tender care; nearly every bead has been given distinct status, shining and absorbing light credibly. The lady, bedecked in all finery is placed against a monochromatic background, devoid of any props which enhances the emphasis on her as the subject. Her composed gaze, coupled with the radiance of her complexion, projects a voluptuous sense of vitality and fertility reminiscent of the representation of a Goddess figures in Central Indian sculpture.
Varma is credited with elevating the status of the “real” women he painted to the level of national symbols of feminine beauty even as they retained their original identities. Tapati Guha-Thakurta explains, “He had in his paintings to make the passage from Western to Indian, from the “real” to the “iconic”. Thus individual models and real ladies acquired in his paintings layers of other significance (aesthetic, social, religious and mythic), which transformed them into feminine and national emblems.” (T. Guha Thakurta, ‘Raja Ravi Varma and the Project of a New National Art,’ Raja Ravi Varma: New Perspectives, National Museum, New Delhi, 1993, p. 45)
The face of this particular model appears many a times in Varma’s oeuvre, especially in his theatrical compositions depicting mythological heroines such as Shakuntala or Damayanti. “Collectively speaking, his women radiate a soft beauty combined with inner strength and intelligence that go beyond beauty of the exterior. The real life models that Ravi Varma selected for his paintings naturally possessed the physiognomy that he desired. Despite, that, these models were only the starting point for the ultimate facial type that the artist made. The faces that he eventually painted are not specific to any particular model, unless it was a portrait or when he deliberately chose to maintain a resemblance to a particular model.” (R. Chawla, ‘Themes and Preoccupations,’ Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial India, Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd., Ahmedabad, 2010, p. 199- 200)
Varma exploited the material promise of oil painting like no one else. Prominent restorer and curator, Rupika Chawla who has conserved many of Varma’s works articulates, “No other Indian painter, till today, has been able to supercede Varma in portraiture in oil, a foreign medium, which the artist mastered over time through trial, error and hard work, while understanding the blending, smoothening and the play that was possible with this slow drying substance, a limitation its own right… The radiological evidence of Varma’s paintings shows the build-up of layers. His luminous skin effects are brought about by an excessive use of white in the preliminary layers gradually adjusted with flesh colors…With each passing decade the potential of oil was absorbed and understood by successive generation of artists in India. Today….all this excitement over oil and impasto techniques appears excessive… [though], a hundred years back it was like a discovery for an almost self-taught artist.” (R. Chawla, ‘Form and Substance,’ Raja Ravi Varma: New Perspectives, National Museum, New Delhi, 1993, p. 119, 122)