RAJA RAVI VERMA was born into an aristocratic family in Kerala and in his day was undoubtedly the most famous native Indian artist, a society figure and one of the 'great and good', almost in the manner of the great Victorian painters like Leighton and Alma-Tadema, with whom (as Partha Mitter notes) he can be compared in his professionalism and entrepreneurial spirit. In his later career his work became hugely popular via lithographs of his images of Hindu deities, but earlier - at around the time of this painting - he was already being feted not only by Indian rulers like the Maharaja of Travancore and of Baroda, but by the English including Buckingham. Lord Curzon, the Viceroy from 1898 to 1905, called his works 'a happy blend of Western technique and Indian subject and free from Oriental stiffness', and on his visit to India in 1875-76 the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, took 'great pleasure in [his] works'. The Maharaja of Travancore presented him with two of them. As the most sought-after academic painter of colonial India who was an aristocrat himself, Ravi Varma was often invited to state occasions by British high officials and the Indian nobility, often recording their activities on his canvases, notably the investiture ceremony of the Gaekwad of Baroda in 1881, and the elephant kheda operation in Mysore on the occasion of the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1906, the year of Ravi Varma's death.
Ravi Varma, despite his aristocratic background, had gone his own way, in which he was aided by the Maharaja, Ayilayam Tirunal, who was cultured and less hidebound than his predecessors, who tended to regard artists as little more than craftsmen. Varma's early work came to the attention of R. Chisholm of the Madras Art School, who encouraged the Maharaja to put the works forward for the Madras Fine Arts Exhibition in 1873. Varma's painting, Shakuntala Patralikhan (Shakuntala's Love Epistle to Dushyanta, inspired by Kalidasa's epic poem), which was entered at the Madras Fine Arts Exhibition in 1876, and sat for his official portrait by Varma in 1878, a portrait commissioned by the British administration for Government House in Madras, and known only from an inventory in the diary of Raja Raja Varma dated Friday 15th February 1901.
Ravi Varma's later paintings, including portraits, were executed with the collaboration of his younger brother, studio partner and amanuensis, Raja Raja Varma. We know that Ravi Varma always painted the face, figure and the attire while Raja Varma did other details and the background, including the landscape. This scene of the reception of the Duke of Buckingham in Travancore would probably have been completed by the brothers after Varma left there, and presented by the artist to the Duke as a token of his appreciation, which would explain the later date of 1881 on the back of the painting.
The brush-strokes in the background suggest Raja Varma, who was a competent landscape painter, while the delicacy of the faces and the likenesses must be the work of the senior partner in this enterprise. A figure in white looks out at the spectator from amongst the group of noblemen framed by the window to the left of the Maharaja. It seems likely that this is Ravi Varma himself, alluding to the practice of painters from the Renaissance onwards of inserting themselves into the action. It was also customary for Ravi Varma to sign his name on the work even when the background was completed by his brother, so highly was he regarded by contemporaries. The signature on the back of the canvas in the present lot is in a hand which bears some resemblance to the artist's signature as seen in other works. Their works show two dominant styles: the first represents a relatively flat treatment and darker colours that hark back to the court oil painters of Travancore whom Ravi Varma knew at first hand; the second style shows deeply modelled painting with the rich colour harmonies of his Baroda period. This painting shows the predominance of the first style.