Art: Raden Saleh: the romantic aristocrat from Indonesia
Raden Saleh, born into a noble Javanese family in 1807, became a pioneer of modern Indonesian art. Although he was the first Indonesian artist to paint in the Western style, the fact that he expressed individuality and creativity in his work (as opposed to the traditional approach which stressed the reproduction of established forms and styles) showed the way for future Indonesian artists to express their own ideas more freely.
The young Raden Saleh was first taught, in Bogor, by the Belgium artist A.A.J. Payen. Payen recognised the young man's talent, and persuaded the Dutch colonial government to send Raden Saleh to the Netherlands to study art.
He arrived in Europe in 1829 and began studying under Cornelius Kruseman and Andries Schelfhout. It was from Kruseman that Raden Saleh learned his skills as a portraitist, and later was received at various European courts where he was commissioned mainly to do portraits. From 1839, he spent five years at the court of Ernst I, Grand Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who became an important patron. From Schelfhout, Raden Saleh learned the skills of a landscape artist.
Raden Saleh visited several European cities, as well as Algiers. While in the Hague, a lion tamer allowed Raden Saleh to study his lions, and subsequently wild animal scenes brought the artist great fame. Many of his paintings were exhibited in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Over 50 years after his death, a number of the compositions created in this period were destroyed in a fire in the Dutch Colonial Pavilion in Paris, in 1931.
The artist returned to Indonesia in 1851, having lived in Europe for 20 years. Here, he worked as a conservator for the art collection of the colonial government. He continued to paint, producing portraits of Javanese aristocrats, and many landscapes. He died in 1880, after returning from a second stay in Europe.
One of Raden Saleh's most poignant creations is 'The Capture of Prince Diponegoro' which was returned to Indonesia from the Royal Palace of the Netherlands in 1978. It now hangs in the Presidential Palace Museum in Jakarta. In the painting, Raden Saleh deliberately made the heads of the Dutch big, a reference to their pomposity and arrogance, and also to make them 'laughable' figures in comparison with the well-balanced figures of the Indonesians.
It is believed that the Javanese man covering his face with his hands, standing behind Diponegoro, and the Javanese man standing with his head bowed in the crowd at the bottom of the stairs, are both self-portraits.