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Capturing the Moments of India

- Ramanjit Singh

How does one paint almost a photographic rendering of a place and its people? How does one capture sunlight in all its various shades? How does one capture life in a painting with such clarity? If we were to think of an artist who was able to combine all these skills and paint the 19th century India with all its vibrance, it will be Edwin Lord Weeks.

Born in 1849 in Newton, Massachusetts, Edwin Lord Weeks was an American painter who travelled the world over and painted some of the most beautiful landscapes depicting the places and people that he visited. And when you see his paintings, you get a sense that the artist had a great ability to draw life like paintings, that he was able to create the illusion of depth and distance on a canvas by using the techniques of linear perspective. He captured a moment in life of a place.

"Along with Frederic Arthur Bridgman, Edwin Lord Weeks is one of the most celebrated of the American Orientalists, this certainly being so during his lifetime, and although quite a lot is recorded concerning his professional career and travels, much of this from his own extensive travel writings, relatively little is known about his private life." - from his biography.

In 1883 he traveled to India and, according to his own letters, spent every day painting and here are some of his remarkable works.

Golden Temple, Amritsar, Edwin Lord Weeks, 1890

(Oil painting, The Golden Temple, Amritsar, 1890, Edwin Lord Weeks (c) Courtesy

It is important for an artist to choose a certain vantage point to draw a setting, to portray it as part of a wider scene, giving it context and life. In this painting, the Golden Temple is set as a backdrop, showcasing its grandeur and sanctity along with the people that are sitting, walking, praying along the banks of its sarovar. You can also sense that the timing of the scene is set in late afternoon, as the buildings are casting long shadows and how the sunlight is reflecting off the Golden Temple. It is a remarkable painting. The actual size of the painting is 119” x 84” which is quite large and life like. This painting is now owned by Brown University, Rhode Island, USA. To get a sense of the size of the paintings, here is a photograph of him in his studio and one of the paintings he is working on.

One of his other paintings is of the Wazir Khan Mosque and the nearby street life of Lahore. Completed in 1889, this painting brings back to life the Lahore of an older era.

Wazir Khan Mosque, Lahore, Edwin Lord Weeks, 1889

(Oil painting, Wazir Khan Mosque, 1890, Edwin Lord Weeks (c) Courtesy

There are other paintings of the Wazir Khan Mosque with different vantage points that can be seen here.

One of my favorite paintings is that of an open air kitchen of Lahore. What a fascinating scene of an everyday life, his use of colors and the reflection of sunlight. One is so drawn into the painting that for a moment it feels like you are actually standing there and seeing what the painter is experiencing.

Open Air Kitchen, Lahore, circa late 1880s, Edwin Lord Weeks.

(Oil painting, Open Air Kitchen Lahore, circa 1880s, Edwin Lord Weeks (c) Courtesy

And then I saw this painting of an entrance into Agra fort. Although it is a simple setting of soldiers at the entry way, but how the artist has used colors to illustrate the sunlight reflecting off the sandstone, the horses, the clothes worn by men, the shadows in the entryway with a soldier standing on the other end of the gate, the tiredness of a soldier dozing off on the side, are just some of the details that makes this painting such a great masterpiece.

Gate Of The Fortress At Agra, India, Edwin Lord Weeks, circa 1880s

The reason why I am highlighting the work of this great artist in this blog is because it offers us a glimpse of an India of a bygone era that history books cannot capture in mere words. The simple every day life of people doing mundane things on any given day in India of the 19th century.

Full gallery of Edwin Lord Weeks paintings can be seen in multiple websites, here are few that I like:


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