The largest and most complete representation of a farming community and market scene set in the the-then Dutch East Indies to come to market, Market Scene is considered a masterpiece of the Dutch artist Rudolf Bonnet. Executed on a grander scale compared to the single subject portraits he more often produced, Market Scene displays Bonnet’s draughtsman-like understanding of the human form expressed to a level of subtle elegance and grandeur. From the level of detail in the picture, it is evident that Bonnet took great care in ensuring that his subjects were represented within his art to the highest classical standard.
In his own words, Bonnet expresses the intention of his paintings:
My work might also be interpreted as a unit, as a single portrayal of a race. It is a story. The story of a peasant-class, preserved in its classical state and part of a people whose background spans the centuries.
Critics have noted aptly that 'his interest in popular types' was already becoming apparent in the 1920s. Considering Market Scene in light of this declaration, it is little wonder that the viewer can sense the strong, confident and yet refined rendering of the figures, each one of them elevated to a semi-classical state. His expert shading and articulation of the drapery of his painted figures – especially evident in the boy with the flute and the man behind him tending to a goat – is completed with a technical precision that recalls ancient Greek sculpture. The gently sinuous bend of the body of the man tending to the goat is a pose worthy to be preserved in the vitrine of time. The female figure carrying a basket of fruits on her head holds dignified upright pose, lending a sense of regal-ness to the painting. Bonnet obviously delighted in studying and painting these figures and their accoutrements; it is through these aspects of material culture that give away the humbleness of their daily lives, and it is through Bonnet's artistic vision and steady hand that they are elevated to the highest standards of classical beauty.
The painting is an exceptional example of the panoramic mural format attempted by a number of Southeast Asian artists to depict daily life in various parts of Southeast Asia. The artists were unanimous in segmenting the length of the painting to lend focus on different smaller groups of figures, establishing the relationship between them in cell-like formations that are repeated throughout the painting. Illustrated here is a comparison of the composition structure of Lee Man Fong’s iconic Bali Life and Rudolf Bonnet’s Market Scene.
Originally commissioned to finish this panoramic piece for the Grand Hotel in Makassar on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, the painting found its way to Amsterdam and was hung for many years in a restaurant in Amsterdam. Although unspecified where the landscape depicted might have been, it is safe to assume that Bonnet would have been painting a Balinese landscape.
Rudolf Bonnet was one of the most individualistic artists to have travelled and painted in the Dutch East Indies in the first half of the 20th century. He stood out amongst his European painters-traveller peers for the steadfastness in which his training in drawing and painting in the Rijksacademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam stayed with him through his numerous years spent outside of his native Holland in the rest of Europe and the island of Bali. He did not - unlike the German Walter Spies, the other notable European artist in Bali - allow his training in the European academic tradition of the early 20th century to be influenced by the prevailing visual traditions in Balinese art.
As with many of the painter-travellers of the early 20th century, Rudolf Bonnet really blossomed as an artist when he began to undertake journeys outside of his native Holland beginning from 1920. Travel freed him from work life, with its regiment and intolerance for creativity and allowed his innate desire to flourish as he applied his training as an artist to new contexts.
He was fundamental to the development of Balinese art when he led the formation of the Pita Maha organisation in 1936 that was primarily concerned with recognizing and developing the quality of indigenous Balinese painting. Proof of his immense dedication to understanding and preserving the essence of Balinese life and culture, the Pita Maha organisation was also a means to increase awareness within a wider audience, and create a market for these local artists. Sparking what is referred to as the golden age of Balinese painting, Bonnet can be said to have helped encourage an atmosphere of artistic excitement and production in Bali that recalled Europe’s own renaissance.
His aim was to immerse himself in the island's culture and landscape. For Bonnet, Bali was a grand stage and its people the enigmatic performers that he would capture again and again in his expressive drawings on paper. Drawing inspiration from the masters of the Italian Renaissance, Bonnet was particularly interested in the study of portraiture and Market Scene must have stood out as a grand culmination of his achievements when he was asked to paint the tableau vivant for the hotel in Makassar.