With its stark composition and subtle coloring, this striking painting transcends its original purpose as a scientific record to become a work of art in its own right. Its subject is the great Indian fruit bat ( Pteropus giganteus), shown frontally with one wing outstretched and the other folded. The body is depicted in considerable detail, with the fur, claws, veins, and sexual organs articulated in shades of brown and gray. Although the artist is unknown, he is believed to have been among the circle of painters who worked for Sir Elijah Impey, chief justice of Bengal from 1774 to 1782, and his wife, Lady Mary. In 1777 the Impeys hired painters to record specimens of flora and fauna that they collected at their Calcutta estate, and, over the next five years 326 paintings of various plants, animals, and birds were made for them. The works tend to show their subjects as fully as possible and with an abundance of detail, against a blank background.
Three of the artists who worked for the Impeys are known: Bhawani Das, Shaikh Zain al-Din, and Ram Das. Their names appear directly on their paintings, alongside the identification of the subject. This painting has not been thus inscribed, but it is closely related to another painting of a bat by Bhawani Das, and it has always been associated with Impey patronage. One can imagine Bhawani Das and the anonymous artist of this painting working side by side, observing the animals, but whereas Bhawani Das’s work depicts a tawny-colored female bat centered on the page, with both wings outstretched, his fellow artist has created an asymmetrical composition of an emphatically male bat in shades of gray and black, one wing dramatically unfurled.
Marika Sardar in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. Archer, Mildred. Company Paintings: Indian Paintings of the British Period. Victoria and Albert Museum, Indian Art Series. London, 1992, p. 97. The Impeys’ collection was dispersed at an auction in 1810.
2. Indian Painting for the British, 1780–1889. Exhibition Walpole Gallery, London. Catalogue by Niall Hobhouse. London, 2001, no. 1; sale, Christie’s London, May 22, 2008, lot 7.
Niall Hobhouse, London (by 2001–8; cat., 2001, no. 2); Niall Hobhouse sale, Christie's, London, May 22, 2008, no. 8, to MMA
"Thursday, March 22, 2008." In The Niall Hobhouse Collection. London: Christie's, London, 2008. no. 8.
"A Selection: 2008–2010." Recent Acquisitions vol. 68, no. 2 (Fall 2010). p. 44.
Ekhtiar, Maryam, Sheila R. Canby, Navina Haidar, and Priscilla P. Soucek, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 285, pp. 342, 400-401, ill. p. 400 (color).