Description: Meeting at the Steps of a Temple Gateway, Muttra
signed 'E. L. Weeks' with the artist's Moghul device (lower left)
oil on canvas
28 x 22 1/2 in. (71.1 x 57.2 cm.)
Painted circa 1885
Artist or Maker: Edwin Lord Weeks (American, 1849-1903)
Literature: Weeks, Edwin Lord: From the Black Sea through Persia and India, New York: 1895; related illustration p. 334.
Notes: This is an imposing figurative painting within an elaborate architectural framework, likely based on studies Edwin Lord Weeks executed during his first expedition to India in 1882-83. Somewhat unusual for the artist, the setting is Hindu, a pink sandstone temple probably dedicated to Vishnu, as were many temples in the city of Muttra (today known as Mathura). Muttra, a small city near Delhi, was then, as today, a center of the cult of Krishna and a sacred city. As Weeks termed it, '[a]n ancient City and place of Pilgrimage.' (Empire of India Exhibition, Illustrated Official Catalogue,London, 1895, p. 210).
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In this large, handsome painting, we see one of Weeks' favorite compositional ideas-a setting structured around a great portal, often with stone steps, and often leading to a sunlit vista beyond-a subject the artist explored in such paintings as The Gateway of Alah-ou-din, Old Delhi (Christie's New York, 25 May 1995, Lot 137) and Royal Elephant at the Gateway to the Jami Masjid, Mathura (Christie's London, 17 June 1999, Lot 65), among others. In the architectural framework of the present painting, we see pilgrims ascending the steps of the temple compound. That the temple is a Hindu one is unmistakable in the iconography of the architecture and accoutrements to the right of the gateway portal. At the base, we see the outstretched figure of the lion god Narasinha, above which is a frieze of opposing elephants, which also hints at ancient Buddhist origins, for which Muttra was also a center. In the carved niche above the elephant frieze, we see the important bronze icons of the complementary pairings of male and female gods, Siva and Parvati. Immediately flanking the portal is a single beautiful lotus column, whose mated pair is unseen to the left of the composition.
Against this compositional background of fine detail and contrasts of sunlight and shadow, Weeks plays a characteristic game with his subject matter, a juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane, the heroic and the quotidian. For in the foreground of the elaborate architectural backdrop just described, Weeks places a finely-dressed Rajput prince standing beside his dappled grey steed and conversing with two pretty nautch girls, one seated upon and the other leaning against the gateway portal. This, too, is a subject that Weeks painted with some frequency, in paintings such as "An Arab [sic] Scene" (Christie's New York, 18 February 1993, Lot 145). As so often, Weeks uses such figures to contrast the timelessness of Indian architecture with the immediacy of a captured moment; in the present instance, a tryst that imbues the painting with an everyday sense of reality and pure pleasurable enjoyment. Weeks carries this through in the nautch girls' colorful skirts and halters the women's necks, arms and bodices uncovered to attract attention and in their diaphanous draped white silks. By the feet of the seated woman is a shallow basket of flowers, probably to be used as a part of their dance adding further sensory suggestion to the scene. The women are painted in full sun, as is the prince's light grey horse, whose hindquarters and legs are beautifully rendered and whose muscular flanks are highlighted. By contrast, the prince is far more understated, with only his tunic and bright red and green embroidered sash providing color and highlight. Standing in the shadow of his horse, and dressed in more somber tones, his dark form echoes the figure of the portal above him.
Although a number of Weeks' paintings from this period survived in the possession of the artist until the time of his estate sale, it is a testament to the quality and desirability of the present painting that it passed into private hands well before that time. This is a fine, characteristic example of Weeks' Indian period.
This painting will be included in the Weeks catalogue raisonné being prepared by Dr. Ellen K. Morris. We are grateful to Dr. Morris for preparing this catalogue entry.