For nearly 200 years, Raden Saleh’s paintings have stopped the observers in their tracks, shaken from the even rhythms of our socialized everyday by the urgent alarm of his paintings’ gestalt. With a wide-ranging oeuvre of historical painting and portraiture, Raden Saleh is perhaps most critically acclaimed for the technical and compositional wonder of his Fighting Animals series, in which the awe of Darwinian struggle unravels in the lyrical landscapes before us. This season, Sotheby’s is proud to offer an astounding and immensely rare painting from the master’s famed series-- executed in 1850.
By the early 1800s, Dutch and British colonial expansionism had decidedly stamped their authority on the island of Java. It was in this climate that the Arab-Javanese Raden Syarif Bustaman Saleh was born to minor nobility in 1811 (although his year of birth is disputed), in the city of Semarang. The premature death of his father saw him living in the court of his uncle, the regent of Semarang. His childhood was deeply complex: at once enraptured by the Euro-Javanese educational synthesis promulgated by his uncle’s court, and witness to the harsh excesses of power European authorities claimed.
In 1829, Raden Saleh arrived in the Netherlands. As the first educated Javanese to travel to the country, he was awarded a stipend by the King of Netherlands, the first “native” to do so. He subsequently traveled across Europe in search of greater artistic inspiration and a formalized education in European artistic practice, encountering the works of Horace Vernet and Eugene Delacroix, the Romantic painters who would leave an indelible imprint onto the scenes he painted. By the time he returned to Java in 1852, he had spent 22 years in Europe, where his work had been met with curious eyes turned toward the Orient. It was in this social climate that Raden Saleh began discovering and developing his own artistic identity.
Fighting Animals, circa 1850
While Saleh flourished as a high society portraitist, he inherently yearned to fashion his own compositions, free from the constraints of formal portraiture. Though he also painted more imaginative works of stormy seas, he soon found himself plunging into an existential crisis, in a crucial search for more palpable subject matter. It was during his emotional nadir, in 1937, when Saleh attended a show by the legendary animal trainer Henri Martin (1793-1882) from Marseilles and immediately found the stimulus he had been looking for. Martin was revered as the first animal trainer to utilize the solely human powers of sensitivity and patience to command wild animals, rather than employing the hackneyed whip. Saleh was awestruck by his control over the ferocious beasts in his menagerie, which consisted of two lions, a lioness, a tiger and a hyena. The animals appeared almost entranced, motioning due to will rather than force.
Saleh was so mesmerized by these animals that his 74 year old friend M.E. Verstege scoffed at his obsession in a letter:
“for a time he lost my friendship because he no longer fulfilled his own obligations: he painted a portrait of Monsieur Martin, director of the animal show, for free merely to acquire the opportunity to paint his lions in every possible power and gesture"
(Werner Kraus and Irina Vogelsang, Raden Saleh: The Beginning of Modern Indonesian Painting, Goethe Institut, 2012, p. 40)
While Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), also a spectator of Martin’s performances, focused on painting Martin’s tiger named Atyr in his prominent work Jeune Tigre Jouant Avec Sa Mere (A Young Tiger Playing with its Mother), Saleh was more fascinated by the lions. Having grown up in the 19th century when there were still numerous tigers in Java, Saleh had already encountered many of these exotic felines. However, he had never stood face to face with a lion.
The newfound accessibility to Martin’s lions drove Saleh into a fresh era in his oeuvre, one in which he was highly prolific. He began experimenting with the theme of hunting and battle, exploring the untameable nature of struggle. Executed in the same year he was awarded the title of “King’s Painter” by his patron, King William II of the Netherlands, the present lot of tigers and lions fighting over the bleeding horse is characteristic of his arresting visual style.
It is often said that Raden Saleh’s work breathed a local perspective into European painting, playing witness to and narrator of a primal, confrontational Tropics. While this is certainly true, one could also appreciate the spectacle on display as that of the unlikely story of Raden Saleh himself-- the local’s voice a ferocious roar of expressive rebellion within the colonial structures in which he had to operate. For Saleh, paintings could provide the agency of clarity in moments of disorientation.
In Fighting Animals, lions, tigers, beasts revel in their muscular physicality, rippling limbs and untethered poundings basking in the depravity of the body. Wrestling over the remains of a fresh kill, the lions and tigers clamour over each other in vivid ferocity and sheer intensity. Saleh’s lines and textures carry a definitive yet tangible softness that accentuates the solidity of his forms, and creates a certainty of presence.
To that end, the dramatic subject matter of Fighting Animals is heightened by the sheer amount of raw power on display. Having studied the beasts closely in real life, Saleh utilises his meticulous brushwork to capture the primal energy accompanying the struggle between the animals with an astonishing degree of verisimilitude.
Observe the solid bulk of the central lion’s haunches, coiled like a powerful spring for leverage as it grapples with the tiger pinned underneath its paws. The light glancing off the lion’s pelt also has the effect of highlighting the rippling muscles beneath, reflecting Saleh’s mastery over light and form. The portrayal of the tiger on the ground is reminiscent of a tiger in Saleh’s renowned painting, Boschbrand (Forest Fire) —its jaws frozen in a silent roar, the pure ferocity of its expression accentuates the untamed magnificence of the beast. In a reflection of the never-ending fight for dominance within nature, another tiger bites down on the central lion while a second lion behind it hunches protectively over its share of the kill.
The dynamic composition of the fighting animals enhances the sense of unbridled force created in their struggle, and gives the painting a strong visual impact. By having the forms of the lions and tigers overlap one another, the viewer is made aware of the immediacy of the drama happening before their very eyes, the scene at hand appearing as a single frozen moment of the fight sequence. In addition, the strong contrast of light and dark tones utilised in the painting creates a spotlight on the unleashed power of the wrestling animals, highlighting the majestic theatricality of the fight portrayed.
Fighting Animals, as the rest of his work, seems to absorb light instead of emit it, rendering his work in the heavy pulsations of a dramatic landscape with generous uses of chiaroscuro. The tense yet sublime terrain acts as a backdrop to the existential drama playing out across the canvas-- the clouds in the background stir in lurid anticipation, the darkening scene indicative of an isolated wilderness, broken only by an indicator of the painting’s setting: a lone palm tree lurching toward the void-like gravity of the central fight.
But perhaps the most striking aspect of Raden Saleh’s image is the terror of an animal staring back at its viewer. It is a gripping moment, transcending body, tragedy and species. The simultaneity of its thrill and inspiration is at once riveting, and infinitely tender, a site where the intimate and the epic converge in a consummate act of combat.
When Raden Saleh returned to Java in 1852, he remained the only local painter at the time to achieve such mastery of European art: no other painter would achieve such renown or acclaim until decades after his death.
Today, Raden Saleh’s works make rare appearances on the market: they continue to captivate viewers even today. Sotheby’s is proud to offer this fantastic masterpiece this season.
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