Edwin Lord Weeks (American, 1849-1903)
Edwin Lord Weeks (American, 1849-1903)

The Temple and Tank of Walkeschwar at Bombay

Edwin Lord Weeks (American, 1849-1903)
The Temple and Tank of Walkeschwar at Bombay
signed 'E. L. Weeks' (lower left)
oil on canvas
65¼ x 45 in. (165.7 x 114.3 cm.)
Bruna Castagna, circa 1945.
Private Collection, South America. with Vance Jordan Fine Art, New York.
Private Collection, New York.
K. Davies, The Orientalists, Western Artists in Arabia, the Sahara, Persia & India, New York, 2005, p. 256 (illustrated).
London, Earl's Court, Empire of India Exhibition, 1895, no.73.
Buenos Aires, Galerias Witcomb, Exposicion Pintura Siglo XIX, 1948, no. 108 (as Le Gange à Benares).

Lot Essay

This lofty, exotic and very beautiful canvas was probably executed in Weeks' Paris studio upon his return from his 1892-93 expedition to India. During that expedition Weeks spent some time in Bombay and the present painting can probably be identified as The Temples and Tank of Walkeschwar at Bombay, which weeks described as 'an effort to render the rich and deep tone characteristic of a tropical atmosphere at Bombay.' (Empire of India Exhibition, London, 1895, p. 213). This splendid work is indeed about 'atmosphere,' a spectacle of intense light and deep shade. The sun striking the brilliant white tomb is set off by the atmospheric density of the blue and aqua of the sky, creating a palpable suggestion of heat and haze of southern India.

The Walkeschwar Temples are clustered dramatically at the extreme edge of the promontory known as Malabar point. As with most of Weeks' great paintings, a significant part of the sweeping drama of the picture lies in its meticulously-calculated composition, in this instance a series of vertical layers, oblique to the picture plane, gradually receding from the foreground figures. The sharp diagonal of the foreground steps leads the eye to the partially disrobed female figure, which then leads to the mid-plane of the scene, where the subtle diagonal of the broad steps is countered by the narrower flight of stairs leading past the white-walled domed temple of Ganpati to the upper temple. Also reinforcing this middle-ground is the unifying sweep of the clay tile roofs. Finally, the background plane of the painting is defined by the towering stone gopura, or spire, of the Hindu temple of Rameshwar Shiva thrusting upward into the vastness of the sky.

In fact, the Hindu temple of Rameschwar Shiva was an unusual architectural element for Weeks to paint, as he usually confined himself to architectural backdrops of the Islamic srtuctures of north India. In the context of this southern painting, however, the Hindu gopura, makes complete sense, and its inclusion in the composition demonstrates Weeks' amazing deftness in constructing wholly accurate complex perspective views.

Opposing the complexity and precision of the architecture and figures is the cool still water of the pool, or tank, an excavated regular pool for ceremonial ablutions, often seen in India as adjuncts to temples and mosques. The handling of the water, like the 'mosaic' handling of the sky, also seen in other works of this period, betrays Weeks' interested exposure to impressionism. Although unusual in any form for an "academic" painter, Weeks' impressionist brushwork seems to have been less an intellectual exercise than a means of more suggestively rendering his subjects.

A large (20 by 30 inches) and finely detailed study for the present painting was sold at Christie's Visions of India sale, London, 21 September 2000, Lot 347 (fig. 1). This study, certainly executed in situ with great care over the course of several days, exactly reflects all the architectural elements and composition of the larger painting, no doubt with the intention of serving as a model for the construction and color of the present painting upon Weeks' return to his Paris studio. Indeed, Weeks conceived of this study as a fully finished painting in its own right, as evidenced by the careful articulation of the stonework, the development of the effects of light and color on the water and, finally, in populating the setting with figures bathing along the periphery of the great tank. The academic skills of realistic draftmanship and naturalistic color, so evident in the study, yield genuine majesty in the full-fledged painting based upon it. The Temple and Tanks of Walkeschwar at Bombay is an important painting from Weeks' mature period, in which a depiction of everyday life is ennobled in an academic vision of the greatest skill.

We are grateful to Dr. Ellen K. Morris for providing the catalogue entry for this work, which will be included in her forthcoming Weeks catalogue raisonné.

(fig. 1) Edwin Lord Weeks, Temple and Tanks of Walkeshwar, Bombay, Private Collection.

More from Orientalist Art, 19th Century European Art

View All
View All