Coastal Vision and the Negotiated Arts of Coromandel, 1610-1832

Date of Award

Spring 2022

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


History of Art

First Advisor

Cooke, Edward


This dissertation examines the artistic culture of the Coromandel Coast of Southeastern India during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The only area of the world simultaneously occupied by the Dutch, English, French, and Danish East India Companies, Coromandel was the center of artistic innovations across media. Through case studies of cloth, wood, ivory, steel, and paint, this project offers a framework for analyzing colonial art during the “Age of the Sail,” a period when European trading companies’ extractive practices across the globe reached an apex. This multisensory method of artistic creation and perception – which I term Coastal Vision – is a relationship-based model for understanding how local and distant histories intertwined in the region’s arts. The dissertation also uses close studies of materiality and techne to reexamine notions of mimicry, which have traditionally framed colonial art as derivative. Rather than producing replicas of European forms, however, local artists translated local and distant artistic languages, providing innovative solutions to the transnational artistic concerns of perspective, surface, ornament, and representation. Considering multiple media together reveals how Indian and European artistic practices found dynamic equilibria within the region’s complex political climate. Chapter One posits that Coromandel’s landscape offers an apt metaphor for understanding textiles that were produced by local artists as commodities for East India Company patrons. While trading companies’ activities were largely limited to the coastline, or the area of greatest economic utility, local rulers largely studied and nurtured the region’s interior landscape. These perspectives intertwined in cloths that communicated European martial success through the florid language of sacred narrative. Chapter Two examines how Coromandel furnituremakers translated quintessential European furniture forms into the local material and ornamental languages. Using the materials of ebony, teak, rosewood, and ivory, Coromandel makers challenged traditional dichotomies between form and surface. Revealing the importance of ornamentation across media, Chapter Three inquires why Coromandel artists would import European steel blades to a global node of steelmaking, and only produce handles locally. The chapter argues that steel became a useful currency of diplomacy in both Coromandel and Northern Europe. Finally, Chapter Four reexamines the medium of “Company Painting,” which was created to represent Indian life to British viewers. But Coromandel artists pioneered an entirely new method of materializing identity to viewers near and far, revealing their skill in translating media and dimension. These artistic negotiations transformed the production and reception of the portrait gift, which is the focus of the Coda. Ultimately, this negotiated mode of artmaking returned to Britain, and so the arts of colonial Coromandel transformed the art histories of India and Europe alike.

This document is currently not available here.