Painting Within Tent: Jan Brandes in the East Indies

Jan Brandes (1743-1808), Ambon Birds (1784), watercolour and graphite on paper, 19.5 x 15.5 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Among the many surprises in store for the visitor to Amsterdam in the Netherlands is the continuing strength of its cultural links with what was known as the East Indies, the Indonesian Archipelago, and other cultures around the lands to the north and east of the Indian Ocean. This goes back to the late sixteenth century, and was consolidated in the formation of the United East India Company, probably the largest commercial corporation to have ever existed.

For two centuries, this huge organisation took many European nationals out to the East Indies to oversee its commercial operations there. It wasn’t an easy option by any means: travel was high risk, sailing around the Cape of Good Hope and the edges of the Indian Ocean. In 1778, one new employee to make this journey with his pregnant wife was Jan Brandes (1743-1808), who had been born in Bodegraven, the Netherlands, had studied theology, and was a Lutheran minister. He turned out to be quite a scholar too, with a keen interest in natural history, ethnography, and a wonderful painter in watercolours.

Brandes’ six year career with the company wasn’t without personal tragedy. The couple’s son was born soon after their arrival, but his wife Anna died the following year, leaving Brandes to bring the boy up himself. Over those years, he was based in the company’s local headquarters in Batavia, now Jakarta. After resigning from the company, he travelled to what is now Sri Lanka, and South Africa, where there were thriving communities of Dutch traders and settlers. Eventually Brandes returned to Europe, where he settled in Sweden. He died there in 1808, leaving his sketchbooks which are now among the gems of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

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Jan Brandes (1743-1808), Adam and Eve in a Utopian Village Scene (1779-85), watercolour and graphite on paper, 29.8 x 60 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Brandes painted this Utopian village scene of Adam and Eve while he was away from Europe, between 1779-85. Its landscape is decidedly tropical.

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Jan Brandes (1743-1808), Batavian Fish-catching Bird (1779-85), watercolour and graphite on paper, 19.5 x 15.5 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Another painting which he made during his stay in the East Indies shows a Batavian Fish-catching Bird (1779-85), which he identified as the species Alcedo caeruleo-cephala.

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Jan Brandes (1743-1808), Pomegranate and Blossom (1779-87), watercolour and graphite on paper, 19.5 x 15.5 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Brandes is believed to have painted Pomegranate and Blossom (1779-87) while he was based in Batavia.

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Jan Brandes (1743-1808), Indian Butterflies (1784), watercolour and graphite on paper, 19.5 x 15.5 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1784, while he was still in Batavia, he painted this collection of large Indian Butterflies.

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Jan Brandes (1743-1808), Ambon Birds (1784), watercolour and graphite on paper, 19.5 x 15.5 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

These Ambon Birds from 1784 were found on Ambon Island in Indonesia, and include species of parrot.

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Jan Brandes (1743-1808), Mangosteen (1784), watercolour and graphite on paper, 19.5 x 15.5 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Brandes made copious note to accompany this painting of the Mangosteen fruit from 1784, describing its sweet and sour flavour as being almost like peaches or apricots. This fruit has been cultivated as a prized crop in south-east Asia since ancient times, and remains a delicacy which is exported around the world.

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Jan Brandes (1743-1808), Adamsberg (Mulkirigala), entrance to the sculpture chambers in the rock (1785), watercolour, ink and graphite on paper, 26.3 x 38.8 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Brandes continued to keep notes and to paint after he left Batavia. In 1785, when he was visiting what is now Sri Lanka, he painted the entrance to Buddhist sculpture chambers at what was known as Adamsberg, now the Mulkirigala Raja Maha Vihara. This has been built on a two-hundred metre high rock, and is a recognised archaeological site.

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Jan Brandes (1743-1808), Tree in Ceylon (1785-86), watercolour and graphite on paper, 19.5 x 15.5 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

This landscape of a Tree in Ceylon was painted in 1785-86.

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Jan Brandes (1743-1808), A tied elephant is led out of the kraal (1785), watercolour and graphite on paper, 19.5 x 15.5 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

During his visit to Sri Lanka, Brandes was particularly interested in the local elephants. A tied elephant is led out of the kraal, from 1785, shows the early steps in domesticating a wild elephant, with many men working to keep the elephant in captivity alongside already-tamed elephants until it too had become tame.

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Jan Brandes (1743-1808), Elephant Emergency Kraal (1786), watercolour and graphite on paper, 19.5 x 31 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

This Elephant Emergency Kraal (1786) shows another wild elephant in captivity in Sri Lanka.

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Jan Brandes (1743-1808), Self-portrait (1789), watercolour and graphite on paper, 33.2 x 20.9 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Brandes made this Self-portrait in 1789, by which time he had settled in a far quieter life in Skälsebo in south-east Sweden.

Like so many of those who painstakingly painted and documented their travels, his sketchbooks remained undiscovered until long after his death.