Raja Ravi Varma: A Poet of Aesthetic and Cultural Confluence

Philadelphia-based Patrick Connors, a lecturer at Yale University, analyses Ravi Varma's paintings, vis-a-vis their technical specifications. He dwells on Chiaroscuro techniques and composition of each painting from the perspective of a present-day artist.

By Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

Adapted from a lecture by Patrick Connors exclusively presented for the Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation.

Ravi Varma received rudimentary training in European style oil painting. Yet his work displays the three classic pictorial structures of Western art - Spatial depiction, Chiaroscuro, and Chromatic Development. These structures facilitated the expression of Varma's personal poetry.

Ravana Carrying Off Sita and Opposed by Jatayu, Raja Ravi Varma, 1906, Original Source: Srirkanta Datta Narasimharaja Wadiyar, Sri Jayachamarajendra Art Gallery Trust, Jaganmohan Palace, Mysore
Hanuman's Discourse, Raja Ravi Varma, 1870, Original Source: Private Collection
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Patrick Connors, an American artist, teaches at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts among several others schools. Combining his skill and knowledge of arts, Connors examines technical specifications in Ravi Varma's oil paintings.

Music Hath Charms (Kadambari), Raja Ravi Varma, Circa 1890, Original Source: Collection of Madhu and Chander Verma
Hesitation, Raja Ravi Varma, 1880, Original Source: Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad
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The Visual Revolution, known as the Italian Renaissance, was fueled by the concept that “light is subject matter.” Originating from this concept, two innovations, Linear Perspective and Chiaroscuro, defined not only its imagery but shaped the culture and thought of its people.

Rama Threatens The Ocean God Varuna On His Not Making Way For Him, Raja Ravi Varma, 1905, Original Source: Sri Jayachamarajendra Art Gallery Trust, Jaganmohan Palace, Mysore
Sita in Ashoka Grove, Raja Ravi Varma, 1894, Original Source: Private Collection
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Linear Perspective in art refers to the system of creating depth on a flat surface. The ability to add depth and space to a two-dimensional space appealed to artists from the Renaissance period (15th Century). They appreciated new techniques in art and applied new mathematical theories to creativity. Leonardo Da Vinci was a master at using Linear Perspective in his work and said, “perspective is nothing else than the vision of a scene behind a flat and clear glass…”

Pai Raphael "School Of Athens" (1901)LIFE Photo Collection

School of Athens by Raphael

Ravi Varma recreated implicit moments that evoked contemplative moods for the viewer. Much like Raphael's School of Athens seen in the Vatican or Caravaggio's Calling of St. Matthews.

The Story of Light

These works showcase brilliant perspectives of light through objects like the window, shutter and table.

Quattrocento, which means "four hundred" for the years belonging to the fifteenth century, was one of the most important periods of European art and culture.

Early practitioners of the new art of perspective in the Quattrocento understood that its power lay not so much in revealing the way things are, as in manipulating the way things appear to be.

Varma followed this in his work.

Chiaroscuro is the use of strong contrast between light and dark, in a manner that effects the composition of the work. Derived from the Italian words 'chiaro' which means 'light' and 'scuro' meaning 'dark', this technique is employed to define the three-dimensional quality in objects.

Sita in Ashoka Grove (1894) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

The Art of Pictorial Structure

Ravi Varma cleverly manipulated pictorial structures to give them wonderful, emotive qualities. While many artists face difficulty manipulating the colour red, Ravi Varma managed to do it masterfully as is evident in this painting. 

In terms of Chromatic development, notice the flesh tone on the demons and how the form is manipulated. Also note the shade of the sari draped around Sita. These are brilliant artistic observations that one doesn't consider because they are executed incredibly well by Varma. 

Connors says: "This painting is one that alludes various emotions. The dark tones of the demons' skin is brilliant. It is very difficult to make flesh and fabric look more dark than light to give its Chiaroscuro resonance."

Shakuntala's Impending Calamity (1890) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Government Museum, Chennai, India

Poetry and Emotion

Ravi Varma manipulated the overall Chiaroscuro in each painting. Most times a painting is either too flat or too dark. Chiaroscuro is clearly present in his work to enhance the poetry of the narrative. 

Poetry is emotion put into measure. The emotion must come by nature. But the measure can be acquired by art – Thomas Hardy, English poet. 

Varma captures these poetic moments effortlessly in his work.

Shakuntala Removing Thorn From Foot (1898) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Sri Chitra Art Gallery, Thiruvananthapuram

Composition & Spirituality of Painting

Varma brings together pictorial structure and invokes in the viewer a sense of empathy for young Shakuntala. Here the foreground of the painting is in shadow - but it is the middle ground that is in the light.

This is a composition that Raja Ravi Varma has so cleverly manipulated that our attention is brought to Shakuntala first. The eye then travels to the shadows and we notice of one of her companions. 

The cloaked figure is an integral part of the painting, yet we don't actually see it at all. His head is covered with the cloak, but he is in the light and hence the viewer cannot miss him (or his presence) in the painting.

The construction of the landscape is similar to what you see in Italian Renaissance paintings. Ravi Varma gives each tree its due, enabling the viewer to sense the spirituality and romance of the moment.

A portrait, at its best, should be a poem... full of space and reverie – Charles Baudelaire, Salon of 1854.

The Miser (1901) by Raja Ravi VarmaRaja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

A Portrait or Two

The art of portraiture has two structures - intimate and formal. The Miser by Ravi Varma is categorised as an intimate portrait, where the viewer contemplates the subject as a fellow human being.

Notice how the threshold of this portrait is maintained at eye level. It is like the artist is issuing an invitation to be face-to-face with the subject. Varma often adopted this technique when he was painting someone unknown to him.

Yuvaraj Kanterava Narasimharaja Wadiyar In A Hunting Dress (1902) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Sri Jayachamarajendra Art Gallery Trust, Jaganmohan Palace, Mysore

A Message In Each Portrait

This is a formal portrait of Yuvaraj Kanteerava Narasimharaja Wadiyar. It conveys the subject's status as the threshold of this painting is meant to look up to the model.

This kind of portrait indicates a person of importance as one who is looking down to others.

These pictorial structures facilitated the expression of Ravi Varma's personal poetry. He depicted the mythological life of Hindu deities and religious figures, genres or scenes of everyday life, family life and from his travels the portraits of those he encountered. His artistic practices helped shape the perception of an emerging, modern India.

Credits: Story

Information & Research: Patrick Connors
Adapted From: Lecture by Patrick Connors titled 'Raja Ravi Varma: A Poet of Aesthetic & Cultural Confluence'
Additional Inputs: Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation
Images: Used with permission from Rupika Chawla's 'Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial India'
Copyright: Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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