Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Charles W. Bartlett and the Taj Mahal

Some artists have favorite subjects that reappear over and over in their work.  Think Georgia O'Keefe and flowers, Kuniyoshi (or Foujita) and cats, Brangwyn and bridges (or windmills), etc.  For Charles William Bartlett (1860-1940), a seminal image in his work would be the Taj Mahal.

Self-Portrait (September 1933)
Personal Collection
(watercolor)

In December 1913, Bartlett and his second wife, Catherine ("Kate"), left England for a trip around the world.  By January 1914, the pair was in Kandy, Ceylon and, by February 3rd, they were in Madura, India.  Bartlett and his wife would spend more than a year and a half traveling throughout India and Pakistan until the early fall of 1915, when they finally left the subcontinent for Japan.  Bartlett filled a number of sketchbooks and generated a sizable number of watercolors documenting various scenes of Madura, Pondicherry, Benares, Allahabad, Jaunpur, Agra, Srinagar, Peshawar, Amritsar, Muttra, Udaipur, and the Dal Lake in Kashmir, among other locales.  The Bartletts visited Agra twice, first in March 1914, and again sometime in 1915.

Taj-Mahal (1915)
Courtesy of the Honolulu Museum of Art
(watercolor over graphite)

Through Kate Bartlett's friend, the artist Elizabeth Keith, Charles Bartlett was introduced in Tokyo to the young woodblock print publisher Watanabe Shōzaburō, who was looking to expand his fledgling shin hanga print business.  (Other authorities state that the introduction came via Friedrich Capelari or through Watanabe's friend Hattori Kibei.)  After publishing a dozen prints designed by Capelari and a one-off with Hashiguchi Goyō, Watanabe was still having difficulty convincing Japanese artists to work with his craftsmen.  It therefore should not be surprising that Watanabe saw the potential for Bartlett's Indian watercolors to be turned into new prints that would have both artistic merit and commercial appeal to his Western clientele, and he immediately took steps to add Bartlett to his stable of artists.  Work seems to have begun in January 1916, and there are records of sales of two print designs as early as mid-February 1916.

Sketchbook study for 1st Series. India. portfolio cover (c. late 1915 - early 1916)
Photo from a sketchbook now residing at the Honolulu Museum of Art
(ink drawing)

Cover for the 1st Series. India. portfolio (1916)
Courtesy of hanga.com
(woodblock print)

Bartlett's collaboration with Watanabe began with a series of six India landscape prints which, in addition to being sold individually, were also issued as a group in their own portfolio.  There are sales records of portfolios being sold by the end of March 1916, so all the print designs must have been completed and produced by that date.  The portfolio cover itself was adorned with its own woodblock print of the Taj Mahal.  The printing run of the Indian portfolio prints was supposed to have been limited to 100 impressions, but that probably did not extend to color variants issued outside of the portfolio.  (As a point of comparison it is known that 250 copies were initially made of the "Udaipur. 1916, II" (aka "Water Palace, Udaipur") design just a few months later.)  However, the extreme rarity of the cover prints for the India series portfolio (as well as those for the subsequent Japan series portfolio issued later that year) suggests that the number of complete portfolios issued was quite small.  No doubt a significant number of the portfolio covers were lost as a consequence of the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923 that destroyed Watanabe's shop.  The highest numbered portfolio copy I've encountered so far in the literature is number 32.


Agra. 1916 (1916)
Courtesy of Scholten Japanese Art
(woodblock print)

Besides the portfolio cover, one of the initial six India Series prints was a Taj Mahal nocturne called "Agra. 1916."  The original mat window for the print is inscribed with the following remark based on a comment found in Bartlett's sketchbook: "The domes and minarets of the Taj-Mahal stand out clear in the moonlight.  A caravan of camels passes."  This print sold very well right out of the gate, as there is a record of 70 additional copies of it and two other designs from the India series being printed in early 1917.


Taj Mahal. 1916 (1916)
Courtesy of Paramour Fine Arts
(woodblock print)

By the end of September 1916, Watanabe had published two more Bartlett Taj Mahal designs in a somewhat larger format.  One is a dawn view from the north bank of the Yamuna river called "Taj Mahal. 1916".  The original mat for this print is inscribed "The Tomb of an Emperor's wife. / The calm of an Indian dawn."

Taj Mahal, Early Morning (c. 1914-1915)
Personal Collection
(watercolor)

Taj-Mahal. Agra. 1916. (1916)
Courtesy of The Art of Japan
(woodblock print)

The other is a view from the Paradise Gardens called "Taj-Mahal. Agra. 1916" (although it is sometimes referred to as "Taj-Mahal by Moonlight").  Interestingly, the original watercolor upon which it is based is called "Taj Mahal, Early Morning."  Bartlett's sketchbook contains the following poetical description: "Pearl of the Orient sculptured and wrought / Gem finely cut from an Emperor's thought / Casket enshrining a world of fair dreams / Set in the light of the moon's silver beams."  This particular print design evidently sold so well that there were no copies left to be included in Watanabe's famous June 1921 exhibition and sale.  I think it safe to say that some of Hiroshi Yoshida's later India prints owe a great deal to the success of Bartlett's India prints.

Taj-Mahal - Night (1931) by Hiroshi Yoshida
Courtesy of The Art of Japan
(woodblock print)

The Bartletts would spend much of the rest of 1916 traveling through China and Korea before setting sail for Hawaii, arriving in Honolulu in January 1917.  The pair liked the climate and the people so much that they repeatedly extended their stay, eventually deciding to take up permanent residence in Manoa.  Although the Bartletts would return to Japan and China in 1919 for a brief visit, and spent most of 1921 in Japan, China, and Java, the bulk of Bartlett's remaining woodblock prints were designed in Hawaii and mailed to Watanabe.  Watanabe, in turn, would mail him back keyblock prints and trial prints for Bartlett's review and annotation.  In the period prior to the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923, Bartlett's prints would include three additional Taj Mahal designs.  (Color variants of many of Bartlett's woodblock prints and even some etchings exist, but I'm saving that discussion for another time.)

Taj-Mahal from the Desert (c. 1914-1915)
Courtesy of Christies.com
(pen and watercolor)

Taj-Mahal from the Desert (c. 1919)
Courtesy of Artelino.com
(woodblock print)

Taj at Sunset (c. 1914-1915)
Personal Collection
(watercolor)

Taj-Mahal. Sunset. (c. 1919)
(woodblock print)

Bartlett's sketchbook contains the following comment: "The red sandstone wall with its corner towers throws into relief the pearly quality of this unique memorial."

 
 Sketchbook study for "Taj-Mahal. Twilight" (c. 1914-1915)
Photo from a sketchbook now residing at the Honolulu Museum of Art
(pencil drawing)

Taj-Mahal. Twilight. (c. 1920)
Personal Collection
(woodblock print)

Interestingly, the above impression of Taj-Mahal, Twilight is the very one that Bartlett used to satisfy the U.S. copyright registration deposit requirement, and it bears a Library of Congress stamp on the back.  Bartlett's sketchbook contains the following comment: "The moon is full.  The dome and minarets catch the last rays of the setting sun."

Gateway to Agra (c. 1923)
Courtesy of Robyn Buntin of Honolulu
(etching, drypoint hand-colored with watercolor)

Starting around 1923, Bartlett would returned to etching, a medium in which he hadn't worked since leaving England a decade earlier.  These etchings would provide relief from Bartlett's work on larger canvases, which took longer and longer to complete, particularly as Bartlett's eyesight began to deteriorate.  It also provided a quicker way of generating print stock as opposed to the rather slow mail order process with Watanabe.  Like his earlier Dutch etchings, most of these later etchings appear to based on Bartlett's paintings.  Five of these etchings feature the Taj Mahal and/or architectural structures on its grounds.

Taj-Mahal from the East. (c. 1923-1927)
Courtesy of Castle Fine Arts
(etching, drypoint hand-colored with watercolor)

Taj Mahal by Moonlight (1923)
Courtesy of the Honolulu Museum of Art
(oil on canvas)

Taj Mahal, Agra (aka Pearl of the Orient) [large version] (c. 1923-1925)
Personal Collection
(etching, engraving, drypoint printed in blue ink hand-colored with watercolor)

Taj Mahal, Agra (aka Pearl of the Orient) [small version] (c. 1923-1925)
Personal Collection
(etching)


Taj Mahal, Agra (aka Pearl of the Orient) [small version] (c. 1923-1925)
(etching, hand-colored with watercolor)

Taj Mahal, Agra (1915)
Courtesy of the Honolulu Museum of Art
(watercolor)
Taj Mahal (1927)
Personal Collection
(etching, drypoint hand-colored with watercolor)

Whether accidental or intentional, Bartlett's last completed woodblock print design also featured the Taj Mahal in the distance.  In the original impressionistic painting, the Taj Mahal is barely discernible through the morning mist.  Bartlett, however, would have revised this work when designing the print, both in size and in composition, and there is a record in Bartlett's papers of having sent such a watercolor to Watanabe in January 1925.  (Presumably, this watercolor currently resides in the Watanabe family vault.)  For the print, the observation angle through the Golden Pavilion's columns has been greatly simplified and the number of people has been reduced to a lone figure in red gazing at the Taj Mahal on the other side of the riverbank.

Taj-Mahal From The Golden Pavilion (c. 1914-1915)
Personal Collection
(pastel with watercolor)

The Taj-Mahal from the Fort. Agra. (c. 1926)
Courtesy of hanga.com
(woodblock print)

While it is tempting to imagine the figure in red as a surrogate for Bartlett himself saying a final goodbye to the Taj Mahal, Bartlett produced one last etching on the subject in 1927 (as shown above), and he would again return to this subject in 1936 for one of his last major oil paintings.

Taj Mahal in Moonlight (1936)
Personal Collection
(oil on canvas)

Why did Bartlett return again and again to the Taj Mahal in his work?  Behind the semi-poetical inscriptions in his notebooks, Bartlett himself doesn't seem to have left behind any written discussion on the subject.  One can only speculate as to the various factors that may have played a part.  To a British subject like Bartlett, colonial India, the "jewel in the crown," would certainly been a source of nationalist pride, and there is hardly a more emblematic symbol of India than the Taj Mahal.  Nor could Bartlett have been oblivious to the patently commercial nature of the image.  Certainly Watanabe recognized this in producing so many of Bartlett's woodblock prints featuring the Taj Mahal.  Then there's the obvious parallel between Bartlett, whose first wife died in childbirth, and the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal as a mausoleum to house the tomb of his favorite of three wives, Mumtaz Mahal, who also died in childbirth.

Fruit Sellers Under The Banyan Tree, India (1931)
Personal Collection
(oil on canvas)

None of those reasons can be discounted, particularly the latter.  (Somewhat understandably, the Taj Mahal was not a particular favorite of Kate Bartlett.)  But I think there was a fourth factor as well.  The Indian sun brought about a change in Bartlett's painting style.  After years spent painting grey-skied Dutch landscapes and somber peasant scenes, Bartlett's India paintings have a new found power and energy as he opens himself up to the possibilities presented by such intense sunlight.  He moves from an unromantic, naturalistic style to one that is increasingly impressionistic and romantic.  Instead of drab farmers, the natives are depicted in brightly colored robes.  The interplay between sun and shadow becomes key both in his paintings and in his prints, as does the changeable nature of light at various times of day.  This is true, of course, for almost any of his Indian paintings, not necessarily just those involving the Taj Mahal.  However, the reflective nature of the white marble of the walls and dome of the tomb provided Bartlett with a particularly unique subject to capture from various vantage points as the lighting conditions varied.  His later oil paintings are rendered in an thick impasto style using mineral pigments that practically shimmer and glow.  Bartlett also started to scrape the paint on his canvases to impart a palpable tactility and a three-dimensionality to his subjects.

Amritsar (c. 1940) (unfinished at the time of Bartlett's death)
Personal Collection
(oil on canvas)

I leave the readers with two final Bartlett images of the Mormon Temple in Laie, Oahu.  This was the first temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints built outside of the continental United States.  It was still under construction at the time that the Bartletts arrived in Hawaii, and was not completed under November 1919.  As such, it certainly would have been a topic of conversation among the locals at the time, and it quickly became a magnet for tourists.  For Bartlett, however, I believe it was more than just another exotic building to paint.  It became, in effect, a stand-in for his beloved Taj Mahal, with its tree-lined series of reflective pools, gardens, and a white facade that is illuminated at night.


Sketchbook study for Mormon Temple, Laie, Oahu (c. 1919)
Photo from a sketchbook now residing at the Honolulu Museum of Art
(pencil drawing)

 Mormon Temple, Laie, Oahu (c. 1919) 
Personal Collection
(watercolor with pastel)

Bartlett's ledgers contain the names of several other Taj Mahal paintings and sketches beyond those depicted in this post.  Four additional Agra watercolors or drawings reside at the Honolulu Museum of Art, but unfortunately they are not available for viewing on its website.  The other owners of the remaining Taj Mahal paintings are not known at this time, at least not to me.  Please feel free to contact me if you happen to have images to share of other works by Bartlett that feature the Taj Mahal.

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