The Solvyns Project

Robert L. Hardgrave, Jr.
The University of Texas at Austin

A self-portrait of Balthazar Solvyns, from his book Les Hindous, Vol. IV (1812)

Balthazar Solvyns, self-portrait, from Les Hindoûs, Vol. IV (1812).

The Flemish artist François Balthazar Solvyns (1760-1824), who lived in Calcutta from 1791 to 1803, is little known, but his collection of etchings of the Hindus provide a rich and compelling portrait of India two hundred years ago. These prints, depicting the people of Bengal in their occupations, festivals, and daily life, and the accompanying descriptive text, have rarely been referred to by historians of India. Indeed, for most historians, Solvyns was apparently unknown--or at least "unseen"--and no systematic use of his work had been made until, in the late 1980s, I initiated the current project with a long article, co-authored with Stephen A. Slawek, a colleague in ethnomusicology, on Solvyns's portrayal of musical instruments.

Solvyns was born in Antwerp in 1760, of a prominent merchant family, and had pursued a career as a marine painter until political unrest in Europe and his own insecure position led him to seek his fortune in India. Following his arrival in Calcutta in 1791, Solvyns worked as something of a journeyman artist, but in 1794, he announced his plan for A Collection of Two Hundred and Fifty Coloured Etchings: Descriptive of the Manners, Customs and Dresses of the Hindoos. The collection was published in Calcutta in a few copies in 1796, and then in greater numbers in 1799. Divided into twelve parts, the first section, with 66 prints, depicts "the Hindoo Casts, with their professions." Following sections portray servants, costumes, means of transportation (carts, palanquins, and boats), modes of smoking, fakirs, musical instruments, and festivals.

The project proved a financial failure. The etchings, by contemporary European standards, were rather crudely done, and they did not appeal to the vogue of the picturesque. In 1803, Solvyns left India for France and soon redid the etchings for a folio edition of 288 plates, Les Hindoûs, published in Paris between 1808 and 1812 in four volumes. Even these sumptuous volumes failed commercially, victim to the unrest of the Napoleonic wars and to the sheer cost of the publication. When the Kingdom of the Netherlands was formed in 1814, Solvyns returned to his native Antwerp, where William I appointed him Captain of the Port in recognition of his accomplishments as an artist. Solvyns died in 1824.

Solvyns's life is itself fascinating, and his portrayal of India constitutes an unrivaled visual account of the people of Bengal in the late eighteenth century. The prints in themselves are of importance in a tradition reaching back to the early seventeenth century, and even earlier, with encyclopedic efforts to represent systematically both the unfamiliar, as in costumes of foreign lands, and the familiar, as in the typologies of peasants, craftsmen, and street vendors. In portraying the Hindus, however, Solvyns is not simply recording ethnographic types. He gives his figures individual character and places them in time and space, with narrative interest, and in doing so, he provides the viewer intimate access. This separates him from purely encyclopedic interest, for with artistic purpose he combines the ethnographic and the aesthetic. He conveys "art as information."

As an artist, Solvyns provided a prototype for the genre of "Company School" paintings of occupations, done by Indian artists for the British, that became popular in the early nineteenth century. But more significantly from an historical and social perspective, Solvyns's work, with its accompanying descriptions, constitutes "the first great ethnographic survey of life in Bengal." Moreover, in his ordered, hierarchical portrayal of Hindu castes in Bengal, however problematic it may be, Solvyns may well be the first European to provide a systematic ranking of castes. Yet this contribution has never been recognized, and historians and anthropologists have rarely drawn upon Solvyns for an understanding of society in Bengal in the late eighteenth century.

I first encountered Solvyns in the summer of 1966 in San Francisco, when my friend Francis (Frank) Hutchins told me of some individual etchings he had seen in a shop that specialized in Indian miniatures. I was immediately attracted to them, as here was an artist genuinely interested in the people of India It was only later that I was able to identify Solvyns as the artist, and there was little information available about him. My fascination with Solvyns led me as a collector in quest of the full, unbroken sets of the Calcutta and Paris etchings. I was fortunate to acquire the Paris edition, Les Hindoûs, from a London dealer in the early 1970s. Although the bindings for the four volumes were tattered, the prints were in immaculate condition. A little more than a decade later, again in England, I acquired the Calcutta prints, with the 1799 title page and in original leather binding.

Within my collection of European prints and drawings portraying India, the Solvyns etchings have, for me, remained the most compelling, but I knew little of Solvyns's life and work.

Solvyns held a special interest for me, as a university professor specializing on India, in what he reveals of India two hundred years ago. In most of the etchings, Solvyns's portrayal of his subject is its first visual representation, and the etchings and Solvyns's accompanying text thus provide an enormously rich--and untapped--resource for our understanding of Indian society. In the late 1980s, I proposed to my colleague Stephen Slawek that we use Solvyns's 36 etchings portraying musical instruments for a long article for the journal Asian Music. This effort began what has become "the Solvyns project." We later revised the article for publication as a book, Musical Instruments of North India: Eighteenth Century Portraits by Baltazard Solvyns (1997). ("Baltazard" is the alternative spelling of his name that Solvyns used for the title page of Les Hindoûs.) The music book and its companion Boats of Bengal (2001) reproduce etchings from the Paris edition in small format, with black and white prints. Each print is accompanied by Solvyns's descriptive text and by my detailed commentary on the subject portrayed. The two small books, inexpensive though handsomely printed, were "spin-offs" of the larger project, A Portrait of Hindus, published in 2004, that reproduces all the Solvyns etchings (using the Paris edition supplemented by etchings from the earlier Calcutta edition), with Solvyns's text and my commentary for each, together with chapters on Solvyns's life and work. A Portrait of the Hindus: Balthazar Solvyns & the European Image of India 1760-1820, is co-published by Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd. (Ahmedabad), India's foremost publisher of art books, and Oxford University Press (New York) in its South Asia Research series.

A Portrait of the Hindus is fundamentally a scholarly book, but it is not intended as an "intervention" in current academic post-colonial, post-modern debates about the representation of "the other." These theoretical contributions have an important role in advancing our critical understanding of "the production of knowledge," but they have no place in what is intended to be the basic reference work on Solvyns that will stand long after the dust has settled on current debates and as new issues are engaged.

In 2017, I donated my Solvyns collection to the Blanton Museum at the University of Texas at Austin. As a study collection, it includes the etchings of the 1799 Calcutta edition and of the Paris edition (Les Hindoûs), the Orme volume The Costume of Indostan, a number of prints “after Solvyns,” and files of research material on Solvyns’s life and work.

Solvyns Online

Published Work by François Balthazar Solvyns

Publications on Solvyns by Robert L. Hardgrave, Jr.

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