Much has been discussed of Raden Saleh, as the indigenous genius whose artistic expression equaled if not surpassed some of his first European teachers, such as the Dutch painters Cornelius Kruseman and Andreas Scheifhout. In 1829, Raden Saleh left for Holland where he studied under his Dutch teachers and in 1839 was sent to Paris for further study by the Dutch colonial authorities. These trips which had laid foundation for his mastery of painting technique also exposed him to European literature and thinking.
It was noted that on 18 May 1839, Raden Saleh went to Germany and he settled down in Dresden and became close friends with some of the German nobilities. His stay in Germany was important not just to his painting development, but more significantly, it was a period of his life when one could begin to read of his reflection on his identity as a Javanese - a heritage which he was very proud of. In this reflection, the issue of colonialism inevitably surfaced. In 1847, he wrote of his stay in Germany, "They (German people) made me realize about the difference between the high social culture of Europe and the simple manners of my own people." (Jim Supangkat, Indonesian Modern Art and Beyond, The Indonesian Fine Arts Foundation, 1997, Jakarta, p. 19.) It was also recorded that when one of his close friends in Germany, the Duchess of Kent, brought him to a church and tried to convert him to Christianity, he had said "Why should I become a Christian ? Many horrible things were done in the name of this religion." (Ibid). Another telling tale of the artist's political tendency would be his reading of the book La Revolution de 1848 which was noticed by the Dutch colonial authorities during a routine inspection of his luggage on his return to Java in 1851.
In 1857 Raden Saleh painted the work The capture of Prince Diponegoro, depicting a well known scene when Prince Diponegoro, a religious leader of noble descent who rose against the Dutch between 1825 and 1830, was captured by the colonial authorities. A costly affair for the colonial administration but the victorious and symbolic end, they felt, would need to be documented in the 'right' light and hence a Dutch artist J. W. Pieneman was commissioned to paint and document this scene. Raden Saleh's version of the scene which was done later was drastically different from the former. The artist had in his work, expressed his sympathy for the rebel leader who remained dignified and composed albeit his rage. Crowds of natives were placed in foreground, mostly sitting, as they watched their leader being led away by the Dutch officials, showing an intense but respectful moment of grief and mourning.
It is in this context that one sees beyond a beautiful rendition of a landscape with The Dutch colonial troops patrolling Mt. Merapi and Mt. Merbabu, Central Java. Artistically one appreciates the crisp contours and finished accents of his romantic-naturalistic conviction taught by his Dutch teachers, whose styles were reminiscent of John Constable and William Turner. The composition adopts the inviting panorama view of the 19th century naturalist landscape that guides the eyes of an onlooker into the landscape. The road on left corner area of the work serves as an obvious point of entry into the landscape. And the bridge along the road acts as a clear demarcation on the composition which momentarily stops the gaze of an onlooker from penetrating further into the landscape and thus turns one's attention onto the marching troop.
The miniaturization of the Dutch officials is apparent as the looming presence of the surrounding landscape engulfs the troops, giving a sense of non-consequence and insignificance. This is what was intended by the artist whose reflection on his own identity had led him to question the morality of colonialism and hence revealed in this present canvas, the forestalling of the omnipotent foreign intruders by the sheer magnitude of the landscape, thus keeping the troops at its periphery.
The grandiose of the landscape, on the other hand, cannot be overemphasized. Mt. Merapi and Mt. Merbabu are depicted from a distance with evident volcanic activity from Mt. Merapi, a sign of divinity for the Javanese people and hence suggesting the omnipotence of the land, its culture and its people. Therein lies the subtext of this present canvas, despite the colonial rule which is insignificant and peripheral, the beauty and sanctity of the land is untarnished and eternal.