PROPERTY OF A DISTINGUISHED GENTLEMAN
Oil on canvas
32 x 22 in. (81.2 x 56 cm.)
Signed and dated 'HMazumdar' lower right
Bearing a handwritten label on reverse
For another version of this composition, see Anuradha Ghosh, Hemendra Nath Majumdar, Rajya Charukala Parishad, Kolkata, 2016.
The appointment of E.B. Havell as principal of the Calcutta School of Art in 1894 is often regarded as a decisive moment in the development of Modern Indian art, because of the support he gave to the revivalist style of painting exemplified by the works of Abanindranath Tagore and his followers. However, in 1909, when he retired, he was replaced by an Englishman, Percy Brown, who re-introduced naturalist drawing into the faculty curriculum. This change of emphasis allowed for the on-going survival of academic naturalism in Bengal. The most prominent figure to be permanently influenced by this change was Hemendranath Mazumdar.
Although Mazumdar is frequently described as a self-taught artist, he actually ran away from home to study at the Calcutta School of Art. He later moved to the Jubilee Art Academy, which further reinforced his academic approach to art. In 1921, Mazumdar and Bhabani Charan Law set up The Society of Fine Arts. Here, they staged annual exhibitions with contributors from all over India. They also launched a new journal, in which they published reproductions of their own paintings alongside articles that frequently criticised the Bengal school, whilst promoting the virtues of the academic approach.
Hemendranath Mazumdar is best known for his classical, academic oil paintings depicting women. He painted portraits to make a living, but whilst such commissions provided a steady income, he achieved both critical and commercial success with images of scantily clad models, in a manner that followed in the footsteps of Raja Ravi Varma, but also shared an Orientalist or Neo-Classical sensibility with British artists. Such hybrid imagery was certainly not uncommon in Victorian art circles.
Zehra Jumabhoy notes in reference to Mazumdar's women, '...glowing with gold and flowing fabric, they bring to mind the moony, flower-bedecked damsels who feature in Lawrence Alma Tadema's The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888) and Albert Joseph Moore's Midsummer (1897). If Mazumdar's beauties wear saris that recall Greco-Roman couture; Moore and Alma Tadema's fair maidens sport togas that mimic saris ... In echoing such Orientalist fantasies Mazumdar's art proclaims it right to a multi cultural inheritance.' (Zehra Jumabhoy, 'The Look of Love: Desire and the National Imagination', Hemen Mazumdar The Last Romantic, exhibition catalogue, Singapore Management University, Singapore, 2019, p. 117)
Although Mazumdar achieved both critical and commercial success for his more provocative, almost voyeuristic, images, the women in many other paintings are more modestly dressed, often in plain white saris, but always elegantly adorned with gold jewellery. Importantly, Mazumdar's women appear engrossed in their own activities and lost in thought, ignorant to the gaze of the beholder. The artist emphasises this physical and metaphorical distance by creating a space around the models that is marked by a hazy atmospheric setting. The settings are either dimly lit interiors (as in the current example), or night-time scenes with the moonlight providing the only light source.
'The artist captures on canvas not just the mood but also a moment in time. The viewer is allowed into the secret world of these women when their daily life is paused for a moment of quiet introspection. It upholds those transient and passing moments when shorn of her many duties, she gives herself entirely unto herself and acknowledges her being. It is in these moments that she allows her emotions free reign, visiting those thoughts she might never express, whilst preparing herself for her domestic chores.' (Supriya Consul, 'Painting the Woman: Hemen Mazumdar's Life in Art', Masterpiece VII, Manas Kamal - Hemen Mazumdar, New Delhi, 2016, p. 31)
The current painting depicts one such moment of quiet introspection. The young lady, elegantly dressed in a pale golden sari and white silk blouse, contemplates her reflection in a mirror. Her head is no longer covered with the end of her sari, as it would have been in society. Instead, her sari is gathered around her waist, revealing her face and torso. The posture intentionally maximises her cleavage, and it is here that the title of the work Seventeen is significant. The painting is clearly symbolic of a moment of transition in the girl's life from a childlike innocence to womanhood.
'So, what did Mazumdar achieve? He created a genre of Bengali beauties that captured the imagination of the contemporary Bengali public because of the novelty of their intimacy and their immediacy. They were not impersonal figures learned from art schools but palpable, breathing, real women.' (Partha Mitter, 'Hemendranath and the Vexed Question of the Wet Sari Effect', Hemen Mazumdar The Last Romantic, 2019, p. 98)
The colours of the original are slightly lighter, warmer and have greater tonal variations than the catalogue illustration. The painting has been recently re-lined, cleaned and varnished. Adhesive tape, previously applied along the edges of the painting underneath
the frame, has been removed. The original label has been re-applied on the reverse of the canvas. An area of paint loss behind the figure's neck has been consolidated with associated retouching. When examined under UV light, small scattered areas of consolidation and
retouching are visible on the figure's blouse, her neck, face, one spot at the left upper edge and one spot in between her and the mirror. Areas where the adhesive tape have been previously applied have also been consolidated and in-filled accordingly. A professional
conservator's report is available upon request. Overall good condition.
About The Artist:
HEMENDRANATH MAZUMDAR (1894-1948)