“I saw these Indians at the opera and they appeared to me so remarkably picturesque that I thought I should like to paint them. But as they communicated to their interpreter that they would never allow themselves to be painted unless the request came from the King, I managed to secure that favour from His Majesty.”3
Vigée’s life-size portrait of Dervish Khan is an extraordinary reflection on a French woman’s perception of a powerful Indian man, painted with exceptional skill and delicacy. Dervish Khan is imposing and formidable, clutching and displaying his curved sword with its detailed engraving, showing off his power both physically and culturally. There is an initial element of fierceness in the portrait, but the elegance and grandeur of the costume overcomes that, as the light so delicately falls on the bright, gauzy fabrics of his gown and reflects off the golden embroidery of his detailed sash and floral overcoat. He wears the traditional costume that so enamored the French men and particularly women who encountered his embassy, so fascinated by the Indian fabrics which were making their way into French fashions. Indeed this sheer, layered white muslin recalls the dress scandalously worn by Marie-Antoinette in a portrait painted by Vigée a few years prior (fig. 2). Exhibited at the Salon of 1783, that painting was received with great horror that the Queen would allow herself to be painted in a sheer white dress, not just because it was inappropriate to be seen in outside the home, but also because she was promoting a foreign muslin fabric rather than French silk. Vigée’s decision to focus the painting on Dervish Khan’s luxurious costume brings a feminine note to the otherwise very masculine painting and provides an interesting commentary on French fascination with exotic goods and luxury fabrics from outside the continent.
As Muslim men, the idea of having themselves represented pictorially, let alone by a female artist, was unheard of. Vigée tenacity and resourcefulness in achieving the sitting was a remarkable feat. After the request came from the King, they agreed to sit for her at their hôtel in Paris. Her detailed description of the encounter in her memoirs provides a fascinating look into this awkward clash of cultures. She is thrown by their sprinkling of rosewater on her hands upon her entering, and later at dinner is shocked when she finds the dining room set for them to sit down on the floor. She painted Dervish Khan first, “standing, with his hand on his dagger. He threw himself into such an easy, natural position of his own accord that I did not make him change it.”4
When the paintings had finished drying, Vigée sent for the works but was refused; Dervish Khan had hidden his portrait behind the bed. As Vigée enthusiastically recalls, she strategically convinced his servant to steal it back for her, only to later hear that Dervish Khan had then planned to murder the servant for this transgression. Luckily, an interpreter convinced the ambassador that murdering your valet was not acceptable practice in France, and he falsely claimed that it was the King who wanted the portrait.5
The intensity in which Dervish Khan is portrayed is unlike any other portrait by Vigée, whose oeuvre tends more towards a sympathetic portrayal of handsome and elegant royal courtiers. The work recalls the grand portrait of the Polynesian Omai, painted by British artist Joshua Reynolds in 1776, in which the foreigner is grandly and powerfully depicted in his robes, standing in a landscape (fig. 3). As Joseph Baillio points out (see Literature, under Baillio and Salmon 2015), it is possible that Vigée knew the portrait from the 1777 engraving of it by Johann Jacobé. This fascination with the East, and particularly with their exotic costumes, was widespread in both France and England in the 18th century.
The painting, along with that of Dervish Khan’s fellow ambassador Osman Khan, was exhibited at the Salon of 1789, which opened in August despite the disquieting political climate. Both pictures were displayed prominently, as shown in a drawing of the exhibition by Charles de Wailly (fig. 4). They were received by the public with immense curiosity and critical acclaim. By October, however, Vigée had fled Paris in fear of her life after mobs had invaded Versailles. Given that the painting next appears in the estate sale of her husband, Jean-Baptiste Pierre Le Brun, it can be surmised that she kept the work in her personal collection but left it at home in France when she went to Italy. Vigée’s portrait of Osman Khan is also included in Le Brun’s auction, though it has since been lost.
In the end, Dervish Khan and the embassy did not achieve their goal of a treaty with France; Louis XVI agreed only to reopen a commercial alliance, not a military one. When the three ambassadors returned to Mysore that fall, Tipu Sultan had their heads cut off due to their failure. While Tipu continued his efforts against the British for another decade, in 1799 he was finally defeated and killed. His death can be seen as a turning point in Europe’s relationship with India; while a mutual exoticism and fascination was nurtured for the centuries leading up to this point, by 1799 the divide of “East” and “West” had shifted into an attitude of superiority by the Europeans as they continued to expand and colonize.6
Vigée’s haunting portrait of Dervish Khan is compelling for many reasons, particularly as it captures this very unique moment in history. On the eve of Revolution, a female artist in France gloriously captures a striking foreigner, a Muslim ambassador from India, as he encounters the exotic world of Paris: in hindsight, the portrait is even more powerful than the sitter himself had hoped to be portrayed.
1. See D. Kisluk-Grosheide and B. Rondot, under Literature.
2. For a detailed discussion of the gouache and an interpretation of its meaning in light of the undercurrents of the French Revolution, see M. Martin, under Literature.
3. Vigée Le Brun, Souvenirs, 1989 translation, under Literature, p. 24.
4. Vigée Le Brun, op cit., pp. 24-25.
5. Vigée Le Brun, op cit., p. 25.
6. See A. Jackson and A. Jaffer, under Literature, p. 11.
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