Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 3, 1999
Beth Fowkes Tobin Picturing Imperial Power: Colonial Subjects in Eighteenth-Century British Painting Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998. 320 pp.; 42 b/w ills. Cloth $54.95 (0822323052)

Some of the most provocative and insightful scholarship on eighteenth-century British art produced in the last fifteen years has explored the vexed relationship between art and commerce. This important body of work is limited, however, by its “domestic” vision of what that commerce actually entails: it tends to focus on art produced in Britain, commercial discourse produced by British ideologues, and the British merchant as a domestic figure. Beth Fowkes Tobin’s Picturing Imperial Power: Colonial Subjects in Eighteenth-Century Painting is a welcome addition to this scholarship. As its title suggests, it expands the field of inquiry by posing new questions about the role of art in Britain at a time when its status as the major commercial power in Western Europe was understood to derive substantially from the wealth generated by its overseas colonies.

The book is organized as a series of case studies of paintings, prints and drawings produced during the final third of the eighteenth century, that tumultuous period when British colonial interests began to shift from North America to the Indian subcontinent. Within this time frame, Tobin states that she will examine images associated with three important sites in the British overseas empire: the North American mainland, the West Indies, and northern India. While this is largely true, the first chapter extends this geographical (and temporal) focus, in an examination of paintings and prints that include the figure of the black servant—variously associated with the West Indies, Africa, or an unlocalized exoticism—and are set in English locales. These images range from Hogarthian satires set in London to conversations pieces set outdoors on country estates. British colonial relations with North America are analyzed in the next two chapters. Chapter Two provides a close reading of Benjamin West’s William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians, while Chapter Three takes up portraiture of military men serving or living in North America. India is the context for the portraits and botanical illustrations considered in Chapters Four and Six, respectively; Chapter Five considers paintings and prints of slaves in the West Indies. These chapters are preceded by a substantial and very useful introduction, in which the author examines the state of the field, and then sets out the theoretical bases (largely derived from postcolonial theory and cultural studies) for her own analysis. In the final chapter Tobin takes up the question of how representation is implicated in the exercise of colonial power. This account of the epistemological bases of representation is structured around two sets of highly charged terms within colonial and aesthetic discourses: the local and the universal, and center and periphery.

As this brief chapter overview suggests, Picturing Imperial Power is a very ambitious undertaking, that requires a thorough understanding of the particular dynamics of British colonial relations in very different geographical contexts. Furthermore, such an inquiry demands a familiarity with the cultural stakes and visual conventions involved in the production of images ranging from natural history illustrations to history paintings. The author has done an admirable job in acquiring and mobilizing considerable expertise in both areas, although, as a professor of English whose self-professed interests are in cultural and postcolonial studies, not art history, her engagement with visual images is circumscribed by their ideological function as “agents in the colonial project” (p. 3). Noting that this project was far from monolithic, she explains that her decision to examine multiple sites allows readers to discover “the variety of subject positions within the colonialist paradigm . . . as well as the revelation of the linked practices and discourses of British colonialism” (p. 8).

Three practices in particular provide conceptual links that bind together these case studies: extraction (of materials and labor from the colonies to Britain), incorporation (of foreign people and resources into a colonial system centered in Britain), and accommodation (of colonial officials and entrepreneurs to the specific conditions prevailing at a particular colonial site). (p. 6) While these techniques are utilized by the colonizers, Tobin is also attentive to the various forms of resistance to British colonial authority mounted by slaves and native peoples. In one case she examines botanical drawings produced for a British publication by anonymous Indian artists; these works, she argues, betray a “Muslim delight in design and intricacy” that complicates and even undermines the ideologically charged visual conventions of Linnaean natural history illustration. (p. 201) As Tobin rightly argues, however, signs of resistance can also be read symptomatically, for tensions and meaningful exclusions, in colonialist images produced by British and European artists. (p. 12)

Using a “multi-sited” approach, the author is able to show that colonial authorities and those they attempted to subject often employed similar strategies in forging new identities designed to enhance their social status and/or political power. However, the ideological effects of such efforts could be quite different. For example, in three different contexts she examines images of cultural “cross-dressing”: scenes of West Indian slaves wearing elaborate hybrids of European and African costume; portraits of British officers and the Mohawk warrior Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea) wearing a mix of British military and Indian clothing; and a portrait of a (unidentified) Anglo-Indian man dressed as a nawab, shown with his two Indian wives and child. The strategic incorporation of aspects of the “Other” is common to all of these images, but they are accomplished through diverse visual means and for very different ends. For example, she reasons that the portrait of the British officer John Caldwell, bedecked, as if for a masquerade, in an eclectic array of native American ornaments and clothing, represents an act of appropriation, designed to enhance Caldwell’s status as a British gentlemen. The visual display of a promiscuous mix of Indian clothing and artifacts effectively denies these objects the ability to “speak” of Indian culture and power, and transforms them into souvenirs designed only to enhance the identity of their British owner. (p. 86)

On the other hand, Agostino Brunias’s images of bejeweled and elaborately dressed West Indian slaves, shown dancing and exchanging goods, possessed the capacity to signify in politically complex and contradictory ways. They could be seen to promote the interests of white West Indians, absentee planters, and colonial ideologues, who argued that it was better to be a well-cared for slave in the West Indies than an impoverished rural laborer in Britain. But, Tobin argues, these same pictures also represent the agency of blacks, whose taking up of European clothing is a form of mimicry that could easily be read as mockery of their white masters, and whose possession and exchange of commodities would seem incompatible with their own status as property. (pp. 158, 172) Thus, Brunias’s images encode forms of slave resistance and opposition that work against their interpretation as visual celebrations of the benevolence of the slave system.

While Tobin’s analysis of the different contexts and potentially different functions of these images of “cross-dressed” colonial subjects in North America and the West Indies serves to deconstruct notions of a monolithic colonial system producing essentialized and fixed notions of colonizer and colonized, it is less attentive to the circumstances of their reception, which were equally fluid and multivalent, and could complicate the way such works were interpreted. Indeed issues of reception receive only occasional and cursory treatment in this book. Were these works publicly or privately displayed? In the British colonies, the European continent or in Britain itself? What kind of viewer would have had access to such works and under what conditions? In the case of Caldwell’s portrait, only a viewer with specific knowledge of various North American Indian nations and their artifacts would be able to appreciate fully the degree to which Caldwell was promiscuously mixing and thus decontextualizing native cultures (it is even possible that Caldwell might have used the portrait as a way of displaying his own knowledge of different Indian tribes when he showed and “explained” the portrait to visitors).

Tobin rightly notes in her introduction that most of the works she discusses have been ignored by art historians, because they were deemed to have little aesthetic value. (p. 2) While this is a fair statement, it is also the case that contemporary assessments of style and quality were often important factors in the production of meaning. In this instance, Caldwell’s attempt at advancing his social status via what appears (from a small black and white reproduction) to be a rather crudely executed portrait (the artist is unknown), could easily have backfired were it displayed to viewers who prided themselves on their own aesthetic sensibilities and knew the cultural stakes involved in having your portrait painted by a Joshua Reynolds, a George Romney, or a provincial hack. The issue here is not whether Caldwell, in commissioning this portrait, attempted to appropriate the cultural and political power of native Americans—clearly he did—but rather how successful that attempt was. And that success depends on the conditions of viewing as well as production.

In the case of Agostino Brunias’s images the situation is complicated by the fact that some of his paintings were engraved and circulated in France, the West Indies, and Britain as prints, others were exhibited publicly in London, while many were produced as private commissions on site in the West Indies and later transported to England. Again, how these images were read depends on where they were seen and by whom. A white inhabitant of Dominica or St. Vincent, where many of these scenes are set, would recognize that many of the figures were not slaves, but so-called free people of color, many of whom were the issue of liaisons between French men and black women. The implications of depicting through variations in skin color, gesture, and costume, a hierarchy of racially mixed individuals in these scenes are too complex to explore fully here. Suffice it to say that even more ideologically complex readings are possible than the author indicates, depending on whether the viewer was a Londoner who happened to have little knowledge of the West Indies, and assumed s/he was looking only at scenes of slaves, or a white West Indian aware of the social tensions among creolized blacks—free and enslaved—attempting to advance their individual interests in a society structured around the aesthetics and ideology of whiteness.

These comments serve less as criticisms than as critical meditations that are largely possible because Tobin has given us the opportunity to extend our thinking about works that, with a few exceptions, are little known even to art historians. Her arguments are provocative and conceptually rich, well-grounded theoretically, and supported by substantial and wide-ranging empirical evidence in the form of an impressive array of contemporary sources. This is a must read not only for those engaged in postcolonial studies, but also for art historians and others interested in reformulating traditional approaches to art based on narrowly defined notions of the nation state.

Kay Dian Kriz
Professor, Department of History of Art and Architecture, Brown University