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Journal of World History 13.1 (2002) 223-225



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Book Review

Picturing Imperial Power:
Colonial Subjects in Eighteenth-Century British Painting


Picturing Imperial Power: Colonial Subjects in Eighteenth-Century British Painting. By BETH FOWLES TOBIN. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1999 . Pp. 320 . $54 .95 (cloth); $18 .95 (paper).

Beth Tobin links colonialism, the semiotics of visual culture, post-colonial theory, cultural anthropology, and recent theories from cultural studies in an attempt to uncover the relations of power that structure what she calls "bad art"--conversation pieces, ethnographic art, and commissioned portraits of individuals and families in colonial locations that are rarely displayed and mostly lie crated in archival storerooms, company offices, or rural mansions. She begins these excavations in the art, politics, social conventions, and racial history of three eighteenth-century British colonies by succinctly surveying a number of theoretical positions and relating them to the British colonial experience of 1770 -95 in North America, India, the Pacific, and Caribbean.

Her title and opening chapter promise an engagement with several key themes in world history--appropriation, domination, resistance, agency, and the exercise of state control of subject peoples. These promises are only partially fulfilled. The introductory chapter hardly mentions painting or art and is annoyingly derivative, citing, for example, a relationship with the recent work of thirty scholars in just three pages.

The post-structural analysis of and linking of multiple histories is [End Page 223] an approach to colonial experience well traversed by the scholars identified in the opening chapter. Tobin succeeds in teasing out a number of intriguing questions for which resolution is promised through an analysis of race, miscegenation, cross-dressing, mimicry, dress fashions, botanical drawings, and portraiture. The following case studies bring into play a useful familiarity with the history of three distinct colonial regimes and suggest that Tobin has read prolifically through several libraries of eighteenth-century history and literature. Indeed this is less a book about painting and art and more a conventional history using art as a vehicle. The book's first five case studies focus as much on slavery, the North American frontier wars, plantation economy in the Caribbean, and company rule in India as they do on the subject matter, style of painting, or artistic conventions which evolved and shaped portraiture in these periods. The sixth case, a diversion into botanical drawings from Cook's voyages in the Pacific and commissioned natural history drawings by South Asian artists could well have been omitted. At times, after a series of tightly crafted analyses, Tobin lapses into the art critic mode, and suggests, for example, that South Asian artists were eager to have their plant drawings "wandering beyond the page's boundaries" or "dancing together with harmony and grace." Really!

The final chapter attempts unsuccessfully to draw together the case studies by exposing the conflict between universal, core ideologies and peripheral, localized motivations and challenges the concept of a monolithic colonialism. Tobin concludes that ordinary (bad) art can be used effectively to disentangle the cultural encounters of specific periods in the longer colonial project but, overall, doubts about Picturing Imperial Power arise because Tobin tries too hard to demonstrate that the theory behind her investigative approach reveals nuances, gaps, and insights overlooked due to the ordinariness of the portraiture. Is it possible that Mohawk weapons and apparel were used in portraits as convenient background curiosities to add local color, and not consciously as signifiers of control, appropriation, and racial superiority? Were native servants painted in for the same oppressive colonial and political motivations, or merely because they were personal and intimate friends of the family? Might it be that some portraits were deliberately and unconsciously ordinary and merely private ahistorical expressions?

The resulting book has several unequal parts. The ability to draw together contesting approaches and an array of recent histories--for example, a 1967 work on slavery, a 1979 work on clothing, and a 1990 work on gender, and relate all to depictions of the dress habits of eighteenth-century plantation slaves--makes Picturing Imperial Power a...

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