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.

Each of these volumes had a slightly different purpose and character. Kircher’s China illustrata, illustrated by an unknown engraver, included images of the ten incarnations amid a variety of other information collected by Jesuit missionaries working in China, India, Egypt and Tibet. Olfert Dapper, an Amsterdam-based writer and physician, published his account of Asia in 1672, with plates engraved by Jacob van Meurs.5 And the Dutch Calvinist minister Philippus Baldaeus, who unlike Dapper and Kircher had actually lived and worked in Ceylon and South India, included a section on Hindu gods in his Description of the East India, Malabar and Coromandel coasts (1672), with engravings by Coenraet Decker.6

Left: Fig. 2. Coenraet Decker, Matsya (1672), copperplate engraving, image 21.4 x 17.1, sheet 31 x 19 cm. From Philippus Baldeaus, Afgoderye der Oost-Indisch heydenen (Pt. III of Naauwkeurige  beschryvinge), Amsterdam: J. Janssonius v. Waasberge & J. v. Someren. Right: Fig. 3. Anonymous engraver Matsya (1668),  copperplate engraving, image 16.6 x 10, sheet  37.5 x 25 cm. From Kircherus (Kircher), Athanasius, Toonneel van China (China Monumentis Illustrata), Jan Hendrik Glazemaker (trans.)  Amsterdam: J. Jansson à Waesberge & E.  Weyerstraet.

Left: Fig. 2. Coenraet Decker, Matsya (1672), copperplate engraving, image 21.4 x 17.1, sheet 31 x 19 cm. From Philippus Baldeaus, Afgoderye der Oost-Indisch heydenen (Pt. III of Naauwkeurige beschryvinge), Amsterdam: J. Janssonius v. Waasberge & J. v. Someren. Right: Fig. 3. Anonymous engraver Matsya (1668), copperplate engraving, image 16.6 x 10, sheet 37.5 x 25 cm. From Kircherus (Kircher), Athanasius, Toonneel van China (China Monumentis Illustrata), Jan Hendrik Glazemaker (trans.) Amsterdam: J. Jansson à Waesberge & E. Weyerstraet.

Kircher’s engraver employed a simple, schematic style. We do not know the exact source material he was working from, but it is likely to have been less elaborate than the colorful paintings on which the other two engravers relied. The texts of the manuscripts Decker and van Meurs worked from both derive from Dutch versions of an earlier Portuguese source, and each included similar Indian paintings.7 Decker’s source had been collected by a Dutch East India Company merchant named Philip Angel and is now in the Norbertine Abbey in Postel, Belgium. Van Meurs’ model is held in the British Museum. Both sets of works were probably painted shortly before they arrived in Europe, in roughly the mid-17th century. On the basis of style, Decker’s models are apt to have originated in Mewar and van Meurs’ in Golconda. Very little is known, however, about either the provenance of these paintings or their passage into European hands.8

Both Decker and van Meurs transformed the original paintings, adding chiaroscuro and other effects to make them more appealing to European audiences. Van Meurs was particularly inventive (or less concerned with accurate representation of the original work), heightening the drama of the narrative and realism of the depiction through light, shadow and scale. Both artists nonetheless also attempted to convey the original content and to elucidate the subject at hand.

Hindus consider the god Vishnu to have ten major forms, or avatāras, among them Krishna and Rama. Incarnations such as the Buddha, Vishnu’s ninth form, are believed by scholars to have been subsumed into this fold as an expression of Vaishnavism’s (devotion to Vishnu) rise, and Buddhism’s fall, on the Subcon-tinent. Representations of the daśāvatāra in art accommodate a diverse range of styles across regions, dates and mediums, all bound by a common iconography that ties the representation to the incarnation  and the incarnation to Vishnu.

A thorough study of all ten incarnations in the three Dutch volumes is beyond the scope of this article, but a comparative examination of the first two incarnations— Matsya the fish and Kurma the tortoise—shows the kinds of inventions and departures made when artists trained in one representational mode and iconographic tradition are faced with the task of communicating information they are struggling to understand through a visual language they are just starting to learn.

Left: Fig. 4. Anonymous artist, from Persian Portraits, Etc. (ca. late 1600s), watercolor with ink and gold on paper, image 21.2 x 16.7 cm, folio 34.5 x 22.7 cm, ©Trustees of the British Museum. Right: Fig. 5. Jacob van Meurs, Kanon (Matsya) (1680), copperplate engraving, image 14 x 17, sheet 34.2 x 20.5 cm. From Arnoldus Montanus, Ambassades Memorables de la Compagnie des Indes Orientales… Amsterdam: Jacob van Meurs.

Left: Fig. 4. Anonymous artist, from Persian Portraits, Etc. (ca. late 1600s), watercolor with ink and gold on paper, image 21.2 x 16.7 cm, folio 34.5 x 22.7 cm, ©Trustees of the British Museum. Right: Fig. 5. Jacob van Meurs, Kanon (Matsya) (1680), copperplate engraving, image 14 x 17, sheet 34.2 x 20.5 cm. From Arnoldus Montanus, Ambassades Memorables de la Compagnie des Indes Orientales… Amsterdam: Jacob van Meurs.

Left: Fig. 6. Anonymous artist, Matsyāvatāra, India, Punjab Hills, Basohli (ca. 1690), ink and opaque watercolor on paper, 20 x 19.4 cm. University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Gift of Jean and Francis Marshall, 1998.42.115. Right: Fig. 7. Anonymous artist, from Persian Portraits, Etc. (ca. late 1600s), watercolor with ink and gold on paper, image 21.2 x 17.2 cm, folio 34.5 x 22.7 cm, ©Trustees of the British Museum.

Left: Fig. 6. Anonymous artist, Matsyāvatāra, India, Punjab Hills, Basohli (ca. 1690), ink and opaque watercolor on paper, 20 x 19.4 cm. University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Gift of Jean and Francis Marshall, 1998.42.115. Right: Fig. 7. Anonymous artist, from Persian Portraits, Etc. (ca. late 1600s), watercolor with ink and gold on paper, image 21.2 x 17.2 cm, folio 34.5 x 22.7 cm, ©Trustees of the British Museum.

Matsya

The version of the Matsya myth recounted in the prints tells of a demon that captures the four Vedas, India’s oldest sacred books, from the god Brahma and takes them into the ocean. Meanwhile, a great fish (matsya) reveals itself as Vishnu to Manu, the first man, who has faithfully raised it. When a great flood hits the earth, Matsya rescues Manu and many other beings by towing them in a boat through the waters. At the end of the flood, he slays the demon and recovers the Vedas.
Each of the three European authors accompanies the engraving of Matsya with some version of this tale. Kircher tells the story of a goddess and four maids abducted by a demon but freed when Matsya cuts off the demon’s head; Baldaeus and Dapper both recognize that the Vedas, not actual people, have been captured.

The compositions produced by van Meurs (Fig. 1), Decker (Fig. 2) and Kircher’s artist (Fig. 3) are almost identical, indicating that their sources, though distinct, were quite similar (see van Meurs’ model: (Fig. 4)). Each places the fish avatar to one side, with the four-headed figure of the god Brahma hovering above four figures representing the four Vedas on the right. (These positions are reversed left-right from the original paintings.) Brahma appears to be receiving the sacred books from Matsya in both Decker and van Meurs. The reproductions, however, contain numerous departures from the source paintings and misconstrue the original iconography. In Indian depictions Vishnu typically appears with four arms, carrying a lotus, club, discus and conch; Decker and van Meurs both substitute books for the lotus; Kircher mistakes Brahma for a goddess. Van Meurs seems to have misread the four figures representing the Vedas in his model, recasting them as members of a throng of devotees that fills in the background around the figures of Brahma and the fish.

A fourth early engraving of Matsya should be noted, this too the work of Jacob van Meurs. It appeared first in a book on Japan published by Arnoldus Montanus in 1669,9 where the subject was misidentified as Kannon, the Japanese form of the Chinese goddess Guanyin (Fig. 5). The composition and iconography are quite similar to a roughly contemporary Indian painting of Matsya now housed at the Berkeley Art Museum (Fig. 6). In the painting, the four crowned Vedas are seated on a lotus leaf coming out of Vishnu’s navel, but in the Montanus volume, they stand in a row at the top of some stairs to the left. Like the other engravings, the demon here emerges from a seashell, but unlike Kircher, Decker and van Meurs, who all show him decapitated, Montanus has him worshipping the god.

Fig. 8. Anonymous engraver, Krexno (Kurma) (1668), copperplate engraving, image 16.6 x 10, sheet  37.5x 25 cm. From Kircher.

Fig. 8. Anonymous engraver, Krexno (Kurma) (1668), copperplate engraving, image 16.6 x 10, sheet 37.5x 25 cm. From Kircher.

Kurma

In the story of Kurma, Vishnu’s second incarnation, the gods make peace with the demons (asuras) so that together they can churn the cosmic sea and produce the elixir of immortality. They use the serpent Vasuki as a rope and Mount Mandara as a churning stick, while Vishnu takes the form of the tortoise Kurma and offers his shell as a fulcrum. This churning reveals a number of treasures, including the coveted elixir.

Kircher’s text does not actually address the Kurma myth; instead, he connects the image with the early life of another incarnation, Krishna, labelling the incarnation Krexno. Baldaeus’ and Dapper’s texts describe the churning of the sea that produces ambrosia; they end their accounts by attributing the myth to the “banyans” or “gentiles,” common appellations used during the period for the Hindus of modern-day Gujarat.

Here again the engravings resemble one another in composition and follow the source paintings we know of closely (see van Meurs’ model: (Fig. 7). All show two demons to one side and two gods to the other. One of Kircher’s gods (Fig. 8) possesses a single head that might suggest Vishnu, though he is already present in the scene at the top of the mountain. Decker (Fig. 9) and van Meurs (Fig. 10) follow their models in depicting one of the gods as the four-headed Brahma and the other as Shiva, though van Meurs misreads his coiffure (which includes the face of the river Ganges descending to Earth through his locks) as a hood.

Van Meurs, who habitually took more liberties in his copying, has moved the treasures produced by the churning to the bottom of the composition to allow Vishnu, floating on a lotus above, to dominate the scene. He also renders the mountain as a waterfall; the original painting depicts a column-like mountain composed of violet and yellow shapes, a frequently used shorthand in Mughal painting for stone. If, like later authors, the artist saw the myth as a reflection of the biblical Great Flood story, a waterfall flowing into the ocean would have made conceptual sense.

Fig. 9. Bernard Picart, after Coenraet Decker, Premiere incarnation Seconde incarnation (The First and Second Incarnations of Vishnu), (detail of an engraving of the first four) (1721), copperplate engraving, image 17 x 22, sheet 41.5 x 25.5 cm. From Bernard Picart and Jean Frederic Bernard, Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses des peuples idolatres, Vol. 1. Amsterdam: J. F. Bernard.

Fig. 9. Bernard Picart, after Coenraet Decker, Premiere incarnation Seconde incarnation (The First and Second Incarnations of Vishnu), (detail of an engraving of the first four) (1721), copperplate engraving, image 17 x 22, sheet 41.5 x 25.5 cm. From Bernard Picart and Jean Frederic Bernard, Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses des peuples idolatres, Vol. 1. Amsterdam: J. F. Bernard.

Later Engravings

Accurate or not, many of these engravings endured, were reproduced and were occasionally altered over the centuries. In the 18th century Bernard Picart copied the Kircher engravings (by way of an intervening reproduction for a French edition of a 1670 work by Abraham Roger that combined all ten into a single large engraving). He also faithfully copied the full set of Decker’s images from Baldaeus for his Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde.10 Picart’s prints were particularly influential since his massive work had a wide readership across Europe. Working with Jean Frederic Bernard, who sorted through the available textual sources, Picart compiled as much imagery as possible for his seven-volume set. It appears that he did not use the Dapper/van Meurs Vishnu engravings, although he drew from other works in the Dapper volume; Picart, who had experience with actual Indian paintings, may have found van Meurs’ stylistic choices and the addition of so many Europeanized figures inauthentic.11

By Picart’s time, many more Indian paintings had been imported to Europe, and he copied a large group of them for the Indian volume of Henri Châtelain’s 1719 Atlas Historique;12 some of these he reengraved for his own later publication.13 Most were portraits and depictions of ascetic figures. There was little religious iconography, apart from a single figure of Brahma.

Picart’s engravings of India were in turn copied and transformed to further illustrate India for the European market. Thomas Maurice’s History of Hindostan, volume 1, of 1795,14 copied nine images from the Baldaeus group, probably via Picart.15 This time the engravings, along with the findings of scholars of Sanskrit, were explicitly employed to link the myths of Matsya and Kurma to the story of Noah.16

Fig. 10. Jacob van Meurs, Kaurans of Kaurmas autaer, de tweede (Kurma avatar, the second) (1672), copperplate engraving, image 29.3 x 18, sheet 31 x 20 cm. From Olfert Dapper.

Fig. 10. Jacob van Meurs, Kaurans of Kaurmas autaer, de tweede (Kurma avatar, the second) (1672), copperplate engraving, image 29.3 x 18, sheet 31 x 20 cm. From Olfert Dapper.

Maurice offers a case study in the purposeful manipulation to which such engravings—originally the product of cross-cultural curiosity and conflicting habits of representation—can be subjected. The religious bias and cultural chauvinism of such later actors have colored the way we view those first artists and their attempts to represent India. They were attempting to translate a visual idiom for which they had no prior conceptual grounding. Equipped with Indian artifacts and European tools, they strove not simply to depict the “other” but to represent a distant way of seeing.



  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. []
  5. Olfert Dapper, Asia, of Naukeurige beschryving van het rijk des Grooten Mogols (Amsterdam: Jacob van Meurs, 1672). Published in English using the original plates in 1673. []
  6. Philippus Baldeaus, Afgoderye der Oost-Indisch heydenen (Pt. III of Naauwkeurige beschryvinge) (Amsterdam: J. Janssonius v. Waasberge & J. v. Someren, 1672). Published in English using the original plates in 1703. []
  7. For a discussion of the similarities, see Jarl Charpentier, “The Brit. Mus. MS. Sloane 3290, the Common Source of Baldaeus and Dapper,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies, University of London, vol. 3, no. 3 (1924), 413–420. The models for Decker appear as figs. 2 and 4 in Carolien Stolte, Philip Angel’s Deex-Autaers: Dutch Sources on South Asia c. 1600–1825, vol. 5  (New Delhi: Manohar, 2012). The British Museum acquisition numbers for the paintings that van Meurs used as models are Matsya: 1974,0617,0.2.58 and Kurma: 1974,0617,0.2.59. []
  8. The source for van Meur’s engravings was identified as early as 1924 by Jarl Charpentier, but there was much confusion about the actual paintings he mentions since the text used by Dapper that had accompanied the paintings had become separated from them over time (Charpentier 1924). Charpentier discovered that the texts used by Dapper and Baldeaus were versions of the same Dutch text that he studied. Knowing that both text and paintings were in the British Museum, a few intervening scholars chose the wrong group of paintings in the museum and presented them as van Meurs’ models (British Museum acquisition nos. 1940,0713,0.35–44). The paintings we now know to be the actual sources are combined with a large group of portraits under the title “Persian Portraits, etc.” They were once labelled as Add. Ms. 5254, but other numbers were later given to them and this set of ten paintings bears the numbers 1974,0617,0.2.58–67. []
  9. Arnoldus Montanus, Ambassades Memorables de la Compagnie des Indes Orientales des Provinces Unies, vers les empereurs du Japon… (Amsterdam: Jacob van Meurs, 1680). Originally published in Dutch in 1669. []
  10. Bernard Picart and Jean Frederic Bernard, Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses des peuples idolatres, vol. 1 (Amsterdam: J. F. Bernard, 1723). Also listed as: Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde…, vol. 3 (Amsterdam: J.F. Bernard, 1723). []
  11. Picart also included four incarnations of Vishnu (Matsya, Kurma, Varaha and Parashurama) in another section of his massive work, the section on Japan. These engravings of Japan were based on Montanus, probably the French edition of 1680; one of them is a copy of Fig. 5 here. Recent scholarship on Picart has not considered these images, perhaps because scholars of Japanese art do not recognize the iconography. They bear titles that refer to Buddhist deities on the whole, but the iconography is clearly Hindu. []
  12. Henri Abraham Châtelain, Atlas Historique, ou Nouvelle Introduction a l’Histoire…, vol. 5 (Amsterdam: Chez les Freres Chatelains, 1719). There are later editions. []
  13. R.W. Lightbown, “Oriental art and the Orient in late Renaissance and Baroque Italy,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 32 (1969): 228–279. []
  14. Maurice, Thomas, The History of Hindostan, vol. 1 (London: W. Bulmer and Co., 1795). []
  15. Maurice had the nine Baldaeus/Picart images copied, but used a print from a more recent work by Pierre Sonnerat as his model for Krishna. Perhaps he didn’t understand the complicated composition for this incarnation seen in the earlier engravings. []
  16. Also copying from Picart in the 1730s and ’40s was Thomas Salmon’s popular Modern History: or, the Present State of all Nations, which was published in various languages (English, Dutch and Italian). The book copied a selection of Picart’s own copies of Baldaeus to illustrate sections on India. In Salmon’s case many of the illustrations merely are window dressing; the actual illustrations are not discussed in the text. []