The Classic Trail: Decoding the Art of Investment

In 1979, the Indian government declared Raja Ravi Varma a National Art Treasure, and prevented export of his paintings. His works are hard to come by, and hence exceptionally priced. Here are a few prominent works that circulated amongst elite collectors in the last five years.

By Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation

Ravi Varma wanted to take art to the masses and in many ways, started the modern art movement in India. Most of Ravi Varma's works are either in museums and some in private collections. Given the rarity of his works that come up for sale or auction, his paintings are indeed high value investment.

Radha In The Moonlight (1890) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

Radha In The Moonlight

This painting by Raja Ravi Varma came up for auction in 2016 and is the most expensive work of the artist till date. It is now part of an important private collection in India. 

Radha In The Moonlight (1890) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

Expensive Mythology

Shungrasoobyer Avergal (1836-1904), who served as Dewan of Travancore (1892-1898) was highly impressed by the painting Lady In The Moonlight that Ravi Varma sent to Mysore. He asked the artist to make a similar one for his personal collection.

Acceding to Avergal’s request, Ravi Varma started work on the same concept, but with some changes and with a more specific love theme. The subject of the painting was special because it was the luminous Radha, Krishna’s beloved consort.

Ravi Varma subsequently painted other canvases of Radha in varying moods and emotions but there are several similar elements across these canvases. 

The platter of fruits and flowers is one such element that is seen in several of his works in the Radha Krishna series. Though the faces may be strikingly similar, the expression and the features get the master's touch based on the theme and mood. 

Compared to 2,123 works by M.F. Husain that have come up for auction, only 64 paintings by Ravi Varma had been sold via auction houses as per records updated in 2017.

Untitled (Portrait of a Young Woman in Russet and Crimson Sari) (Circa 1890) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

Untitled Portrait of Young Woman in Russet and Crimson Sari

This work by Ravi Varma, from the collection of Fritz and thereby to Lotti Schleicher Singh, was sold via an auction house in March 2016.

Untitled (Portrait of a Young Woman in Russet and Crimson Sari) (Circa 1890) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

Beauty & Luminosity

Extremely rare and exceptionally prized, this luminous portrait of a fine-looking woman exudes the radiance and sensitive rendering for which the artist is known. Her composed gaze, coupled with the glow of her complexion, projects a heightened sense of vitality.

This work is highly indicative of Ravi Varma's fascination with elaborate jewellery inlaid with gems, semi-precious stones, elegant traditional costumes and indigenous coiffures. The lady, bedecked in all finery is placed against a monochromatic background.

The jewelry is depicted with tender care; nearly every bead has been given distinct status, shining and absorbing light credibly.

The crimson and russet sari with a richly embroidered blouse is well coordinated with her jewellery and the flowers in her hair. Varma is credited with elevating the status of the “real” women he painted to the level of national symbols of feminine beauty.

Collectively speaking, his women radiate a soft beauty combined with inner strength and intelligence that go beyond beauty of the exterior. 

Untitled (Damayanti) (circa "1890") by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

Untitled (Damayanti)

This iconic painting, from the collection of Fritz Schleicher and thence to Lottie Schleicher Singh, was acquired by a private collector in London in March 2017.

Untitled (Damayanti) (circa "1890") by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

Love And Separation

Characterised by bold colours, static postures, glittering gold foil and inlay work of gemstones, Ravi Varma's works reflect stunning details. Damayanti is a part of the Nala-Damayanti series that Varma captured beautifully, borrowing from mythological reference.

Varma strove to impart the same beauty to his Damayanti that had been written about so poetically in literary sources. Each element in the picture works in harmony, to elevate it beyond just a decorative painting into a meaningful depiction of Indian mythology. 

Varma's depictions of women in particular, are considered to be excellent examples of the paintings that emerged during the 19th century, as is evident from this work.

Many of Varma’s iconic compositions were adapted from photos of theatrical productions or illustrations of Old Master paintings and other images in European magazines. Varma had a large collection of these and often referred to them to draw inspiration for his model’s faces.

This painting was inspired by a photo circa 1900 from the theatre show called The Feast of Roses, L’inamorata. It is fascinating to see how Varma took the posture and stance of the European woman and transformed her features into his vision of idealised Indian beauty.

Untitled (Tilottama) ("circa 1896") by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

Tilottama

This much-sought after work by Ravi Varma was sold to a private collector via an auction house in New York in March 2018. 

Untitled (Tilottama) ("circa 1896") by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

The Celestial Nymph

In this painting, an apsara, a celestial nymph from Hindu mythology, appears in a playful pose. According to mythology, she was fashioned out of the finest qualities of all matter by Vishwakarma at the request of Lord Brahma

She was created with the intent of causing a rivalry between two unbeatable demons. The divine beauty has been represented by the artist as the ultimate temptress—someone whose charms are impossible to ignore. As the demons' atrocities grew, Indra sent Tilottama from heaven. 

So captivated were they by her beauty that the jealous brothers fought over her and ended up killing each other. This painting portrays her descent from the skies down to earth, most likely after her creation.

This painting was inspired by William Adolphe Bouguereau’s Birth of Venus (1879) displayed at the Musée d'Orsay in ParisVenus, considered the embodiment of female beauty, was the inspiration for Tilottama, another mythological character famed for her perfect form. 

Hanuman's Discourse (1870) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

Hanuman's Discourse

Possibly an early work by Ravi Varma, this quaint depiction of Lord Rama with Sita, Lakshmana and Hanuman (shown much older than usually depicted) was sold to a private collector in India in 2019.

Hanuman's Discourse (1870) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

Gods & Goddesses

This is one of the rare works of Ravi Varma which features Hanuman as a wizened old subject in stark contrast to Lord Rama, Sita and Lakshmana, who are all shown characteristically young.

Varma understood the power of the epics and classical texts that he had grown up with, and which his environment had so generously bequeathed to him. 

With the rich oil medium and realism as his tools, Ravi Varma transferred the wealth of stories and mythology that came so naturally to him, into paintings of great resonance.

This work was ostensibly done during the time when he was still under the influence of Tanjore paintings. The ornate parabolic shaped crowns worn by gods and goddesses in Tanjore paintings find continuity in the crowns of Rama and Lakshmana in this painting.

Untitled (Swami Vishvamitra in Meditation) (1897) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

Untitled (Sage Vishvamitra in Meditation)

This work by Ravi Varma belonging to an American collector was sold as recently as March 2020 by an auction house.

Untitled (Swami Vishvamitra in Meditation) (1897) by Raja Ravi VarmaOriginal Source: Private Collection

Epic & Mythological Tales

Although Raja Ravi Varma developed his name as a master portrait artist for the upper echelons of royal society in India, he also achieved fame as a pioneer of popular culture. He was responsible for the mass dissemination of a new visual vocabulary through oleographs.

Ravi Varma depicted characters from religious and mythological texts that resonated with the Indian people. Vishvamitra is portrayed deep in the throes of meditation, eyes closed as he manipulates the prayer beads through his fingers, not noticing the dying embers of the fire.

The background is free of much ornamentation, a vessel and some frayed cloth, all which speak of the ascetic life of Vishvamitra. 

As austere as his surroundings may be, the subject is depicted with incredible attention to detail. The knotted hair and beard, the folds of his clothes, the light and dark tones on his flesh are all rendered with great skill.

The pieces of wood are painted with phenomenal detail and dexterity. Here the artist has melded the tenets of Indian mythology while incorporating the contrast, detailing and colour palette of the Old Masters.

In many ways, Ravi Varma started the modern art movement in India. He had incredible skill and supreme aesthetic vision. Given the way his works are admired, appreciated and sought-after, it is clear he has a draw across generations. Little wonder people have a great affinity for Ravi Varma's art.

Credits: Story

Image Credits: 
Untitled (Portrait of a Young Woman in Russet and Crimson Sari): Photograph Courtesy: Sotheby's Inc © 2016
Tilottama: Photograph Courtesy: Sotheby's Inc © 2017
Untitled (Damayanti): Photograph Courtesy: Sotheby's Inc © 2018
Untitled (Sage Vishvamitra in Meditation)Photograph Courtesy: Sotheby's Inc © 2020
Radha In The Moonlight: Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial India by Rupika Chawla
Narrative: Excerpts from Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial India by Rupika Chawla
Research & Curation: 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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