NOW! JAKARTA | A Chance to View the “American Raden Salehs”

A Chance to View the “American Raden Salehs”

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Over five years ago there was news about four Raden Saleh paintings in the Smithsonian Institution. Apparently, it was not the first time a painting by the nineteenth century Indonesian artist appeared in the United States.

Between Worlds: Juan Luna - Raden Saleh exhibition at The National Gallery of Singapore is held until 11 March 2018.
Photo courtesy of The National Gallery of Singapore

Noted Raden Saleh scholar Marie Odette Scalliet pointed out that “one was offered for sale in NY as early as 1853, another auctioned in NY in 1992”, but unfortunately there is no trace of the two paintings today. The general public has not had the opportunity to see the Smithsonian Raden Salehs since they were presented as a gift to the Institution in 1925.  

The paintings, Forest and Native House, Javanese Jungle, Javanese Temple in Ruins, and Six Horsemen Chasing Deer, are all oil on canvases, measuring around 105 x 187 centimeters and believed to date from 1860. They were apparently given to the Smithsonian Institution by a certain Sally Burbank Swart in 1925. Unfortunately, the information ends there. There was no further information that could be found on the paintings or the gift. 

Who was Sally Burbank Swart? Tracing census and voter records, it could be concluded that she was born Sally Felch Burbank in Massachusetts around 1856, and seemed to have married Haverly Brooks Swart in the early 1880s, as their son, Roland Burbank Swart was born in 1885. Sally Burbank’s father, Abijah Felch Burbank, seemed to have partnered with his brother as a silverware designer/manufacturer based in Boston, Massachusetts. Their firm was listed as Burbank & Brother in 1850. Could she or her husband’s father or grandfather have lived in the Netherlands Indies in the mid-nineteenth century and purchased the paintings from Raden Saleh? 

The Report on the progress and condition of the United States National Museum, 1925, noted the bequest of “4 Javanese oil paintings by Raden Saleh, and a photograph of the artist.” It also mentioned the assistance of Dr. William L. Abbott, who was a noted explorer and field naturalist who amassed collections of ethnological artefacts as well as biological specimens especially from Maritime Southeast Asia, and a key supporter of the collecting endeavors of the United States National Museum. 

Raden Saleh, "Javanese Temple in Ruins", (1860). Photo courtesy of The National Gallery of Singapore

The Report on the progress and condition of the United States National Museum, 1925, noted the bequest of “4 Javanese oil paintings by Raden Saleh, and a photograph of the artist.” It also mentioned the assistance of Dr. William L. Abbott, who was a noted explorer and field naturalist who amassed collections of ethnological artefacts as well as biological specimens especially from Maritime Southeast Asia, and a key supporter of the collecting endeavors of the United States National Museum. 

Valuable information came from Paul M. Taylor,  a curator at the National Museum of Natural History, who had worked using William Abbot’s field notes and made transcriptions of Abbott’s archives. Among the material, there were three letters relating to the four paintings. As it turned out, Roland Burbank Swart, Sally Burbank Swart’s son, wrote to Dr. William L. Abbott’s sister regarding the possible bequest of the paintings to the Smithsonian. Apparently, Roland Swart had been living at the residence of his mother’s relative in London. 

Born Emma Augusta Blackman in Boston, 1847, Emma Fraser seemed to have been directly related to Sally B. Swart’s mother, Caroline Blackman. Upon her passing on October 11th, 1924, Roland Swart was named executor of her estate, including the four Raden Saleh paintings. It appears that he told Miss Abbott about the paintings, and she wrote him suggesting that they be presented to the Smithsonian Institution with which her brother is associated. Roland Swart replied positively. 

Dr. Abbott soon took action. On December 8th, he wrote a letter to Dr. Charles D. Walcott, the Secretary of the Smithsonian, asking if the institution would accept the four paintings, adding his recommendation “Personally I think they are worth having, especially as they represent a state of civilization now passing away even in Java” and offering to cover the expenses of packing and transportation to the United States. Before Christmas Eve that month, Dr. Walcott wrote a letter in favour of the acquisition. The following year, the four Raden Salehs were presented to the Smithsonian Institution as a gift from Roland Swart’s mother Sally Burbank Swart. That was how the paintings got to Washington, D.C. 

Photo courtesy of The National Gallery of Singapore

“The four paintings were done to order for M. Frazer in Java, between 1850 and 1860, and he paid 1000 guilders each for them, exclusive of the frames,” Roland Swart wrote in his reply to Miss Abbott. It is most certain that he meant Mr. Alexander Fraser, Emma Augusta’s late husband who was born in Aberdeen, 1817 and passed away in London, 1904. Roland Swart characterized the painter, Raden Saleh, as a refined person with a noble character who received a fine European education, and became the best of Horace Vernet’s students. He noted that Saleh later returned to Java and set up a large mansion near Batavia in 1852 and that later he built a large country palace near Batavia.

Alexander Fraser, originally a resident of 3, Craven Hill, Hyde Park, London, married Julia Hermina van Citter on Christmas day, 1849. Van Citter was the widow of Eugene Paul Charles Cenie, who passed away 18 July, 1845, after only a year and half of marriage. It seemed that Fraser was a wealthy businessman during his life in The Netherlands Indies in the mid-nineteenth century. It appears that he entered the business sphere in Batavia initially working for Maclaine Watson & Co, which was established in Batavia since the 1920s. Although a naturalised Netherlands Indies citizen, Fraser then became the Consul of Great Britain in Java. It appears that the 1860s was the peak of his business career. “He was a prominent member of the Chamber of Commerce, was married into a Dutch family, and had a wide circle of Dutch contacts, both mercantile and official”. During this period in time, he became involved in the Home and Colonial Assurance Company Limited and the Netherlands Indies Railroad Company. In 1866 he also became the chief agent of the Netherlands Indies Steam Navigation Company. In 1871-72 he attempted to establish a steam line between Java and Australia, which was actually received with great enthusiasm between the governments of the Netherlands Indies and Australia. However, he retired in 1877.

Following the death of Julia Hermina van Citter in Cikande Udik (Banten, in West Java) on February 16th 1879, Fraser left Batavia for Singapore and eventually for Marseilles and later for London. It seemed that he was joined by Emma Augusta Blackman (the widow of Pliny Marshall Nickerson, who was the United States Consul assigned to Batavia) and her two young children. Due to an illness, Nickerson passed away in 1879 in Batavia and was buried at the European Cemetery in Tanah Abang. The inscription on their gravestones, both of which can be found today in the Museum Taman Prasasti, the site of the historic cemetery, indicate that Nickerson died two days after van Citter. Could it be that they were both buried on the same day and that the funerals caused Alexander Fraser and Emma Blackman to encounter each other on that very day? In any case, Nickerson and Fraser were both consuls to the Netherlands Indies, and therefore we can assume that they knew each other. Anyhow, the fate of Alexander Fraser and Emma Blackman, both survivors of their spouses’ deaths, seemed to eventually begin a romantic relationship.  

The four Raden Saleh paintings at the Smithsonian stresses the crucial importance of provenance and archives. Thanks to the archives of William Abbott, we are able to trace these four Raden Salehs to Julia Hermina van Citter and Alexander Fraser as the original owners. It seems apparent that they were very interested in commemorating their wonderful life in the glorious realm of nineteenth century Java and did so by commissioning the most prominent Javanese artist four major works on the subject matter. The fact that the paintings were brought back to London and appeared to remain a very important part of Fraser’s life in London, signified that the imagery had become part of their cultural identity and social pride. 

Raden Saleh, "Six Horsemen Chasing Deer" (1860). Photo courtesy of The National Gallery of Singapore

We are fortunate that after Alexander Fraser’s passing away in 1904, Emma Blackman chose to continue keeping the paintings in her possession until her death twenty years later. Thanks to Mrs. Sally Burbank Swart and Roland Swart, who did their best in making sure that the painting reached a museum no less than the Smithsonian Institution, to Dr. William Abbott who provided a positive recommendation for the institution to accept the painting into their collection, and to Dr. Charles D. Walcott who open-mindedly chose to accept the four paintings done by a Javanese artist —whose works at the time were actually only known to very limited circles in Germany, the Netherlands, France and the Netherlands-Indies— the paintings managed to enter the collection of one of the most important museum institutions in the United States and even the world. The paintings provide us with yet a few more views of mid-nineteenth century Java, and tell us a bit more about Raden Saleh’s life and work, as well as the life of the people who collected them. 

The National Gallery of Singapore has managed to obtain two of the four Smithsonian Raden Salehs on a long term loan. They are currently on show at its Between Worlds: Juan Luna - Raden Saleh exhibition, which is held until 11 March 2018.  Although it is not right here in Jakarta, it is close enough.


AMIR SIDHARTA

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