Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Meditations on a Portrait from Seventeenth-Century Batavia

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Meditations on a Portrait from Seventeenth-Century Batavia

Article excerpt

There is a painting in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam by J. J. Coeman entitled 'Pieter Cnoll and His Family'. It draws together many histories into one moment in time and suggests complex interactions between Asians and Europeans in Asia in the seventeenth century. I first saw this painting in 1974. At that time I was studying the relationships of Asians and Europeans in the Dutch-administered city of Batavia (Jakarta), and was at once attracted to this portrait in which Dutch, Japanese and Indonesians are intermingled in one family circle in Batavia. Over the past 30 years I have revisited this painting many times, and on each occasion it seemed to reveal different histories. To focus on the married couple contributed to the idea of a mestizo culture and the nature of European rule in Asian cities; to focus on dress led to considerations of gender and presentation, as well as the history of textiles, textile workers, field and factory labourers. The painted vase to the viewer's left directed thoughts to the history of trade connections between China, the Indonesian Archipelago and Europe, in addition to the influence of Chinese ceramic painting; the cut flowers suggested histories of gardening, botanical studies, the movement of plants across the globe, as well as class stratification as displayed through luxuries. When the viewer's gaze shifts to the right, the subject of slavery in its many Southeast Asian forms intrudes, as well as histories of domestic relations. The Coeman portrait prompts the viewer to study relationships between owner and owned, between man and woman. It leads the viewer into meditations on the writing of histories. The chief story could be the Dutch East Indies Company if the viewer focuses on the central man, senior merchant Pieter Cnoll, or it might be a history of the making of modern Indonesia if the viewer chooses to concentrate on the Dutch man's servants. Legend, old and new, links Indonesian manservant to European daughter, and links the manservant to histories of nationalism and resistance.

Over the years I have also looked at this painting in between the covers of books on topics such as the colonial government's art collection and the social life of the Dutch in Asia. (1) When I first stood before this painting it was hung in the Rijksmuseum's Colonial Chamber; later I found it displayed in a new context, for museum curators change their ways of seeing and presenting. Coeman's painting had made an intellectual journey from The Colonial Chamber to the gallery of The Dutch Overseas, and before that a physical journey from Java to Holland. The canvas also made its journey of change over 350 years, for cleaning revealed details not easily discerned on earlier visits. For example, the Indonesians in the painting were hard to see before work was done on the canvas. Their emerging from the shadows could be thought of as paralleling the changes in the way histories of Asia and Europe may be written.

There is no framework presented here of colonial gaze and Oriental Otherness. I have not employed the discourse analysis of post-colonialism. To me, that angle of vision oddly parallels imperial historiography, for both place the activities of Europeans in the foreground and relegate indigenous peoples to a shadowy background as the undifferentiated 'colonised', the passive victims. Rather, my approach here is to connect people and objects to contexts and to several historical sequences. What follows, then, are meditations on a painting formed over a long period of learning about Indonesia's histories.

VOC artists

Coeman's most celebrated work was the product of his studio in Batavia. He had, at an earlier point in his career, been hired by the Dutch East Indies Company as a cleric's assistant. The Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, VOC) was the largest corporate employer in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century. It employed carpenters, rope-makers, sail-makers, producers of barrels and bottles and iron nails, inspectors and examiners of sea captains, writers to produce manuals for navigation, specialists in textiles, ceramics and precious metals, medical doctors and artists. …

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