Hidden histories Society

Portrait of a Hungarian artist

August Theodor Schoefft, portrait from Hungarian National Museum, Budapest.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

August Theodor Schoefft (b.1809-d.1888), an enterprising Hungarian artist, first set foot on Indian soil in 1838. Schoefft, who was trained in Vienna, was lured to India by the pomp and grandeur of Indian royalty and their lavish patronage for arts. After his arrival, the artist stayed for a year in Bombay (Mumbai), where he quickly received numerous commissions from wealthy merchant families.

Schoefft’s association with influential patrons and his ability to make quick sketches spread his fame far and wide. The following year he was hired by the Nawab of Arcot to paint portraits, for which he was paid a handsome amount. Not long after, Schoefft became known for his skill in painting court portraits, historical subjects, landscapes and so on.

The artist’s success at the Nawab’s court equipped him to undertake extensive tours to other Southern provinces and sometime around 1015 ME (1840 AD) the artist landed in erstwhile Travancore. Schoefft’s arrival in Travancore coincided with the golden age of art in the kingdom, at a time when it was ruled by Swati Tirunal Rama Varma , a visionary patron of arts.

Though not much is known about the artist’s relationship with the King, it is likely that Schoefft’s dexterity in capturing the likeness of his subjects and his deftness in handling oil paint impressed the King. The artist was commissioned to paint seven portraits of the members of the royal family, for which he was rewarded a sum of Rs. 12,000. These works by Schoefft are exhibited in the Kuthiramalika Palace Museum in the city.

As the foremost European artist hired by the Travancore royals, Schoefft’s works were the earliest oils executed in Western style to adorn the Valiya Kottaram. There is sufficient evidence to prove that Schoefft’s works claimed a respectable position in the royal collection. Prince Alexis Soltykoff, who met Swati Tirunal in 1841, recorded that the king presented him some good copies of his portraits done by an artist who painted the whole royal family in life-like size works.

It is not known for sure whether the artist was granted a sitting by the royal family members, as most of his portraits were based on early paintings executed either in the ‘Company School’ or the ‘Tanjore’ style. Some of the iconic images associated with Swati’s life, like the one showing him as a young prince, seated with his mother and the one of him in royal robes, seated beside his father were painted by Schoefft. Judging on stylistic grounds and fineness in execution, the portrait of Swati Tirunal seated in the ivory throne, his hand grasping the hilt of a sword, can be attributed to Schoefft.

Schoefft’s brief association with the Travancore court is scantly recorded; moreover, vernacular accounts often refer to him merely as ‘Artist Schift’, making it hard to decipher his true identity. The artist’s next major halt was at Lahore, the capital of the Sikh kingdom. At Lahore, Schoefft was the guest of Martin Honigberger, private physician to the Sikh royals and a fellow German speaker. After spending over a year in Lahore, the artist left for his homeland in 1842. Back in Vienna, Schoefft devoted next several years working on his grand masterpieces such as ‘Lahore Court’ and ‘Ranjit Singh at Darbar Sahib’.

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2022 5:12:26 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/august-theodor-schoefft-who-painted-seven-portraits-of-the-members-of-the-travancore-royal-family/article7850380.ece

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