In Paintings: Journey Across India with Traveller-Artists

From the Buddhist pilgrims (Fa Hien and Huang Tsang) to the adventure travellers (Marco Polo and Ibn Batuta), India has been the travel destination for centuries. Long before ‘Incredible India’ and its catchy jingle, it was the accounts of these travellers that brought people from around the world to our doors. These accounts described the beauty and richness of Indian heritage, and their readers yearned to experience the exotic for themselves. While some managed to secure a passage to India, others could not. Now, it was up to the traveller artists to transfer India’s allure onto their canvases and let others experience India through their paintings.

India paintings European Artists Edwin Lord Weeks
Along the Ghats, Mathura by Edwin Lord Weeks, c. 1880. Source: Gandalf’s Gallery

These traveller artists came from varied backgrounds. Some were authors, poets and musicians, others historians and geographers. A few were even public officials, soldiers and war correspondents! But whether they drew monuments from a bygone era, captured the splendours of the Mughal court, or painted the bright bazaars full of spice and colour, these 19th and 20th century artists knew how to breathe life into their work and make their audiences feel acquainted with a land they had never set foot in.

We’ve compiled some itineraries for you, and our favourite ones are:

1. An architectural adventure with Vasily Vereshchagin

Originally a Russian war painter, Vasily Vereshchagin took on a different subject in India. His paintings from his visit to India, first in 1873 and then in 1884, capture the most amazing architectural features; be it of a small monastery in Ladakh or a grand monument like the Taj. Much like Nicholas Roerich, a 20th c. Russian painter, Vereshchagin was also enamoured by the colossal Himalayas. But what set him apart from other painters of his time was his attention to detail. This combined with his use of bright colours created a realistic reproduction of late 19th c. India.

Painting of the Alai Darwaza by Vasily Vereshchagin at the State Tretyakov Gallery. India paintings European Artists
 Gateway near Qutub Minar in Delhi. By Vasily Vereshchagin. Source: State Tretyakov Gallery.
Snowy peaks of the Himalaya as painted by Vasily Vereshchagin. Painting at the V. V. Vereshchagin Mykolaiv Art Museum. India paintings European Artists
The Snow of the Himalayas. By Vasily Vereshchagin. Source: V. V. Vereshchagin Mykolaiv Art Museum.

You can see more of his journey through India on our YouTube Video!

2. Explore India’s natural beauty with Marianne North

At a time when women travelling alone were frowned upon, Marianne North travelled the length and breadth of India, solo. A non-conformist in multiple senses, she travelled to touristy places like Jaipur, Agra, Delhi and Shimla, but also went off the beaten path to traverse the isolated villages of Kumaon in Uttarakhand and captured the natural beauty of these hills. As she was also a botanist, plants and flowers are key elements in all her paintings. Even her paintings of famous monuments like the Taj Mahal show her preference for nature.

Marianne North's landscape painting of the Kumaon hills with cottages in the foreground. From the collection of  Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. India paintings European Artists
Dibee Dhoora Dee with Its Well and Deodar Trees, Kumaon, India. By Marianne North. Source: The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Marianne recorded her adventures in her diary. About her Shimla residence she wrote:

My window looked over endless hills, with great Deodara branches, their stems and cones for foreground.

Painting of Taj Mahal surrounded by trees and flowers. By Marianne North. From the collection of  Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. India paintings European Artists
The Taj Mahal at Agra, North-West India. By Marianne North. Source: The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

3. A postcard journey across India with Hiroshi Yoshida

From the Golden Temple to the Sanchi gateway, Hiroshi Yoshida captured all the major sights of India within his postcard sized paintings. Travelling in the 1930’s, Yoshida used his native Japanese technique of woodblock printing called ukiyo-e. However, this technique faced a set-back with the rise of photography. In order to revive the method, artists, including Yoshida, adopted the Shin hanga method where artists carved and painted bamboo blocks to print images. Yoshida learnt both carving and painting, so that he could create these miniatures from any corner of the world.

A Japanese style ukiyo-e woodblock print by artist Hiroshi Yoshida. From the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M Sackler Gallery. golden temple painting
Golden Temple in Amritsar. By Hiroshi Yoshida. Source: Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M Sackler Gallery
Tools in making ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Includes knives, chisels, brushes and wood block.
Tools used for woodblock printing. Source: Japanese Gallery, Kensington
India paintings European Artists japanese hiroshi yoshida
Ghats in Benaras: An ukiyo-e woodblock print by Japanese artist Hiroshi Yoshida. Source: Art institute Chicago.

These are only 3 of the many, many artists who travelled India. Check out on our playlist to know more such stories!

Have you been paying attention? Take a quick look at the paintings again and come back to test your knowledge of traveller-artists! How many places can you match correctly with their corresponding paintings?

For more such games and quizzes, check our our Museum-Mojo section. You can also subscribe to our newsletter so you don’t miss out on any of them!

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Chitralekha is a museum professional based in London. She holds an MA in History of Art from SOAS. Her areas of interests include Indian miniature paintings, decoloniality in museums, and open access in the cultural space.

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