Jakarta. Raden Saleh, Indonesia’s only true old master, did not make many stylistic changes during a career that spanned most of the span of the 19th century, remaining true to his romantic roots and training. His experiments were limited to the choice of his subjects, which are many – from wild animal hunts to picture-perfect portraits of governors-general of the Dutch East Indies.
The Jakarta Globe’s top five picks of works by Indonesia’s “first modern artist” below represent the most significant milestones in his artistic journey.
1. Watercolor sketches (1822-1825)
These sketches were made between 1822 – when Raden Saleh was just 11 years old – and 1825. The budding artist was already drawing like a pro, with an unerring likeness and attention to detail.
These sketches belong to the Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen (Tropenmuseum) in Leiden, but can be seen at the “Between Worlds: Raden Saleh and Juan Luna” exhibition at the National Gallery Singapore until March 11.
2. “Shipwreck in the Storm” (1837)
Seascapes were popular in Europe during the height of Romanticism in the late 18th to early 19th century. They had also been part of the Dutch tradition since the 17th century, coinciding with the rise of the Netherlands as a global maritime power.
Raden Saleh spent months at a stretch in sea voyages from Indonesia to the Netherlands, giving him a wealth of sea travel experience that made him as adept at painting seascapes as his European counterparts.
The most famous seascapes of the Javanese prince are a series of three paintings, two in 1837 and 1839 entitled “Shipwreck in Storm” and one made in 1842, “Ship in Distress”.
The first painting is now in the National Gallery of Indonesia, the second is in the possession of David Salman and Walter Jared Frost, and the last is in the permanent collection of the National Gallery Singapore.
In 1840, Friedrich Carl Albert Schreuel painted “Portrait of Raden Saleh Syarif Bustaman” in which the Javanese dandy is depicted painting a seascape. According to the assistant curator of Between the Worlds, Syed Muhammad Hafiz, it was a recognition of Raden Saleh’s excellence in marine painting.
3. “Wounded Lion” (1838)
Historical paintings were the highest form of art during Raden Saleh’s lifetime. So, like many other budding artists at the time, he trained very hard to paint in this style.
In the end, he had the skills, but was never comfortable with the style. As a Javanese Muslim, European history and biblical stories were often too foreign to him.
Raden Saleh’s favorite subject turned out to be something more visceral: wild animals. He loved attending the shows of animal tamer Henri Matin in The Hague, where he often sneaked backstage to watch the lions and study their anatomy up close.
The dramatic “Wounded Lion” – now in the permanent collection of the National Gallery Singapore – is the most famous of all his close-up lion paintings.
Another painting that shows Raden Saleh’s obsession with lions is “Lion’s Head” (1843), which now belongs to the Lippo Museum in Indonesia.
The many paintings of lions he created became the basis for his later Orientalist works.
4. “Lion Hunt” (1841)
There are two versions of Raden Saleh’s “Lion Hunt” – one made in 1840 and the other in 1841. The latter, said Hafiz, has a “more mature composition”.
Painted while Raden Saleh was residing in Dresden, the “Lion Hunt” series was among Raden Saleh’s earliest paintings of hunting scenes.
They seduce German art lovers of the time, very curious about the Orient.
Art historian Werner Kraus said that after the Napoleonic Wars, Germans wanted stability and viewed the Orient as “a civilization blessed with the contentment of the present moment”.
The 1840 “Lion Hunt” is now in a private collection, but its sequel can be seen in the National Art Museum of Latvia.
The painting ended up in the Baltic state in the hands of the Baltic-German trader Friedrich Brederlo who bought it in Dresden and then sold it in Riga along with paintings by other artists.
5. “Six horsemen hunting deer” (1860)
“Six Horsemen Chasing Deer” was painted after Raden Saleh’s triumphant return to Indonesia in 1852. It retained an oriental look, but unlike his other hunting scenes, this one takes place on a real grassy plain in Bandung, in West Java, and features Javanese Men – instead of the imagined Middle Eastern scenes the artist had painted many times before.
In the background also appears the Malabar mountain, instead of an imaginary desert or forest.
According to the National Gallery Singapore’s senior curator, Russel Storer, one of the hunters in the painting could have been Raden Saleh himself, who was an accomplished horseman.
The painting was one of four Java landscapes commissioned by a Scottish businessman called Alexander Fraser.
They were inherited by his second wife Sally Burbank Swart who donated them to the Smithsonian’s National History Museum in 1925.
Sixty years later, they were moved to the American Art Museum and have remained there ever since.
The Arrest of Pangeran Diponegoro (1857)
This is probably Raden Saleh’s most talked about painting. This sparked endless discussions about Raden Saleh’s political stance, including whether or not the painting was intended to send an anti-colonial message.
The fact is that Raden Saleh rarely painted historical events, and “The Arrest of Pangeran Diponegoro” never launched a series like his lions and Arabian horsemen did.
Portraits and self-portraits
Portraits were also a large part of Raden Saleh’s work. Both in Europe and Java, he received many commissions for them and also painted them as gifts for people he respected.
Raden Saleh painted Jean Chrétien Baud, the Dutch colonial officer who hosted him on his arrival in The Hague, as well as the infamous Johannes van den Bosch, the 43rd Governor General of the Dutch East Indies who introduced vsultururstelselor forced planting, which brought the Netherlands back from the brink of bankruptcy after the Java War, but also caused famines and deadly epidemics in Java in the 1840s.
After returning to his homeland, Raden Saleh continued to paint portraits of Dutch colonial officers and other foreigners living in the Dutch East Indies, but he also painted local royalty like Cianjur Regent Raden Adipati Kusumaningrat and Pontianak Sultan Syarif Hamid Alkadrie.
This Javanese dandy, the so-called “first modern Indonesian man”, also made a number of self-portraits. In these “selfies”, Raden Saleh is mostly dressed as a typical dapper European.
In Johann Carl Bähr’s portrait, perhaps playing with the West’s perception of him as the East, this “third culture” genius posed playfully in a stylized Middle Eastern outfit.