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Untitled (Ganesh Janani)

Untitled (Ganesh Janani)
oil on canvas
24 x 17 ¾ in. (61 x 45.1 cm.)
Painted circa late 19th century
Acquired in India, circa early 1900s
Private Collection, France
Thence by descent
Drouot Estimations, 5 February 2021, lot 119 (part)
Acquired from the above by the present owner

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Nishad Avari
Nishad Avari Head of Sale

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Lot Essay

The Bengal School of painting is generally recognized as having formally begun in 1905, following the division of the province of Bengal by Lord Curzon, the Viceroy and Governor-General of India at the time. Calcutta, and more specifically the Government School of Art under the leadership of the influential art historian E.B. Havell, became the spiritual and conceptual home of the celebrated Bengal School. The rise of the Bengal School, directed by pioneering artists like Abanindranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose, cannot be explained as linear evolution but represents a beguiling coalescence of several different approaches in a region that underwent enormous social, political, economic and ideological change, first under the East India Company and then the British Raj, until India’s independence in 1947.

One of the practices that preceded and influenced its formation was what is known as 'Early Bengal School painting' today, one of the most critical and intriguing styles to have flourished in the region during the late 19th century. Painters of the Early Bengal School synthesized Eastern and Western traditions to create an aesthetic that was distinctive from any other movement or style of the time. These artists, who remain largely anonymous to this day, were trained in oil painting and Western academic realism. However, instead of using their new skills to paint Western subjects, they coopted them to depict mythological and religious scenes in a novel style. Working at the same time as the famous Raja Ravi Varma, renowned for mastering oil painting in the Academic Realist manner, these artists also showed great skill in their handling of oil paint, albeit in a very different way. What differentiated the Early Bengal School artists was their hybridizing of local or vernacular subject matter to portray iconic mythological scenes. In their work, Company School painting, Kalighat patas, court painting and Western academic realism comingled to give rise to a vigorously syncretic, unmistakable aesthetic. These paintings represent Bengali artisans' creative answer to History Painting, pioneered by French Neoclassical painters in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Lots 608 and 609 offer clear examples of Early Bengal School artists borrowing and adapting styles and techniques from the West to portray Hindu subjects and stories. In the former, a sophisticated portrait of Parvati holding her child Ganesh, richly detailed textiles and jewels are complemented by angelic halos in the tradition of European depictions of the Madonna and Child by artists like Giotto. In the latter, three paintings featuring typical European landscapes and concepts of perspective are populated by Radha and Krishna on a swing, Lord Shiva in the guise of a mendicant, and Krishna with Arjuna in a chariot respectively. Amidst their decidedly non-tropical vegetation and garden arches, the paintings also feature a host of Indian birds and animals, including peacocks, monkeys and barasingha deer.

The unnamed painters of the Early Bengal School set a precedent in adapting certain elements of European art to their own subjects, in which non-western figures and narratives were central. Their work laid the foundations for the more overtly nationalistic Bengal School that followed at the turn of the 20th century.

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