aseantoo submitted to medievalpoc:
Sir Joshua Reynolds
George Clive and his Family with an Indian Maid
Oil on canvas
Height: 140 cm (55.1 in). Width: 171 cm (67.3 in).
From Simple English Wikipedia:
Lord George Clive was cousin of Robert Clive, founder of the empire of British India. He made his fortune there. Clearly the painter found the Indian nurse’s depiction his greatest pleasure.
Is it just me or do the white family look unreal and vacant despite contrasting the dark shades of the back drop. Yet the nurse pops and looks tangible and alive.
A lot of people have responded similarly about the contrast between the white colonial family and the indigenous woman in this painting. Even the child is nearly as white and stiff as a corpse…and yet, these images were intentionally idealized in this manner; their very whiteness can be seen as a rebuke to the Indian woman’s vivid, tangible presence here.
This has everything to do with Color, Chromophobia, and Colonialism.
Chromophobia is marked, not just by the desire to eradicate color, but also to control and to master its forces. When we do use color, there’s some sense that it needs to be controlled; that there are rules to its use, either in terms of its quantity or its symbolic applications (e.g., don’t paint your dining room blue because it suppresses appetite). Please note that I’m not arguing against color psychology; it’s undeniable that certain colors carry certain cultural assumptions and associations, a fact that has led anthropologist Michael Taussig to argue that color should be considered a manifestation of the sacred.
But what I am arguing is that there is a pervasive idea that color gets us in the gut: it’s seductive, emotional, compelling. Color, in the words of nineteenth-century art theorist Charles Blanc, often “turns the mind from its course, changes the sentiment, swallows the thought.”
According to some art critics, sensory anthropologists, and historians, this mutual attraction and repulsion to color has centuries-old roots, bound up in a colonial past and fears of the unknown.
Michael Taussig has recounted that from the seventeenth century, the British East India Company centered much of its trade on brightly colored, cheap, and dye-fast cotton textiles imported from India. Because of the Calico Acts of 1700 and 1720, which supported the interests of the wool and silk weaving guilds, these textiles could only be imported into England with the proviso that they were destined for export again, generally to the English colonies in the Caribbean or Africa.
These vibrant textiles played a key part in the African trade, and especially in the African slave trade, where British traders would use the textiles to purchase slaves. According to Michael Taussig, these trades are significant not only because they linked chromophilic areas like India and Africa, but also because “color achieved greater conquests than European-instigated violence during the preceding four centuries of the slave trade. The first European slavers, the Portuguese in the fifteenth century, quickly learned that to get slaves they had to trade for slaves with African chiefs and kings, not kidnap them, and they conducted this trade with colored fabrics in lieu of violence.”
Where I differ with Taussig is that there is very little doubt in my mind that using the concept of aesthetics in the manner can absolutely be a form of violence, and that art can be used to subjugate.
Say what you will about this being an exaggeration, but I wasn’t the one cleaning the Elgin marbles in acid in the 1800s to better fit a misconception of whiteness…after all, Greek marbles originally looked something like this, much to the chagrin of western aestheticism everywhere:
So when you consider the historical context of the painting in the original post, it becomes entirely likely that the stiffness and whiteness of the colonial family is meant as a desirable contrast to the vibrantly alive Indian woman.
And you should also consider what kind of ideas you have about her from the painting, and think on how your view of her is affected by the context. Is she somehow more “natural” or “wild” than the family? Is she “earthy”? How is her existence affected by the fact that she is situated below even the child in the composition…do her arms ache from holding her up?
I had never seen this painting before it was submitted, and I wonder why that is. There are a lot of things about it that are unpleasant, but the ideas in it influence us anyways.