Engraving India in 17th- and 18th-century Europe

Fig. 1. Jacob van Meurs, Matsjas of Matx autaer, d’eerste (Matsya avatar, the first) (1672), copperplate engraving, image 30 x 18, sheet 31 x 20 cm. From Olfert Dapper, Asia of Naukeurige beschryving van het rijk des Grooten Mogols, Amsterdam: Jacob van Meurs.

Fig. 1. Jacob van Meurs, Matsjas of Matx autaer, d’eerste (Matsya avatar, the first) (1672), copperplate engraving, image 30 x 18, sheet 31 x 20 cm. From Olfert Dapper, Asia of Naukeurige beschryving van het rijk des Grooten Mogols, Amsterdam: Jacob van Meurs.

Only in the 17th century did Indian paintings begin to arrive in Europe in some numbers and engravers begin to copy them. These unfamiliar pictures aroused the interest of artists (Mughal miniatures were copied by Rembrandt and his contemporary Willem Schellinks1) as well as scholars. Mughal rulers were a source of fascination—portraits of the emperor Jahangir and his son Shah Jahan were reproduced in Samuel Purchas’s Purchas His Pilgrimes (1625)2 and in later books such as Athanasius Kircher’s China Monumentis Illustrata (1667).3 But early modern Europeans were also deeply curious about the pantheon of Indian divinities.

The early information was largely fanciful: a rooster-footed demon called Deumo, described by Ludovico di Varthema who visited India between 1503 and 1508, became a popular subject of depiction in the 16th century, appearing in widely dispersed editions of Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia.4 As with many engravings, this figure had a long life and was copied, transformed and reconfigured in a wide variety of compositions for centuries.

Later, when actual Hindu religious paintings became available, they helped familiarize Europeans with Indian spatial and stylistic conventions, and provided important iconographic markers to assist in the recognition and interpretation of Hindu gods. The most dynamic of these works were paintings of the daśāvatāra of Vishnu, his ten major incarnations, which dramatically conveyed the deity’s complex iconography—one god who has many forms. In the five years between 1667 and 1672, three sets of engravings of this subject appeared in books published in the Netherlands.

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  1. For further examples, see Pratapaditya Pal et al., Romance of the Taj Mahal (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1989), 195–98. []
  2. See Donald F. Lach and Edwin J. Van Kley, Asia in the Making of Europe, Vol. III: A Century of Advance, Book Two: South Asia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), fig. 113. []
  3. Athanasius Kircherus (Kircher) (in Dutch), Toonneel van China (China Monumentis Illustrata), trans. Jan Hendrik Glazemaker  (Amsterdam: J. Jansson à Waesberge & E. Weyerstraet, 1668). Originally published in Latin as China Monumentis Illustrata in 1667. Later copies of portraits of Indian rulers became extremely common. In 1672 Olfert Dapper included fanciful depictions of Jahangir (Lach 1993: fig. 115) plus other members of his family, including his grandson Aurangzeb. Authentic sets spanning the entire Mughal Timurid genealogy from Timur (Tamerlane) to contemporary rulers of the 1720s were produced and full sets were engraved in Henri Abraham Châtelain, Atlas Historique, ou Nouvelle Introduction a l’Histoire…, vol. 5 (Amsterdam: Chez les Freres Chatelains, 1719), and Francois Valentijn, Oud en nieuw Oost-Indien,… (Dordrecht: Joannes van Braam, 1724–1726). Curiously these authentic sets made little impact, while the earlier fanciful Dappers were copied often. []
  4. Partha Mittar, Much Maligned Monsters: a History of European Reactions to Indian Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 27. For a discussion of this and related engravings, see also Robert J. Del Bontà, “Early European Engravings on Indian Themes,” The CSMVS Research Journal, published by the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai, in press. []