Picturing Imperial Power

Colonial Subjects in Eighteenth-Century British Painting

Picturing Imperial Power

Book Pages: 320 Illustrations: 42 b&w illustrations Published: February 1999

Art and Visual Culture > Art History, Cultural Studies, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies

This study of colonialism and art examines the intersection of visual culture and political power in late-eighteenth-century British painting. Focusing on paintings from British America, the West Indies, and India, Beth Fowkes Tobin investigates the role of art in creating and maintaining imperial ideologies and practices—as well as in resisting and complicating them.
Informed by the varied perspectives of postcolonial theory, Tobin explores through close readings of colonial artwork the dynamic middle ground in which cultures meet. Linking specific colonial sites with larger patterns of imperial practice and policy, she examines paintings by William Hogarth, Benjamin West, Gilbert Stuart, Arthur William Devis, and Agostino Brunias, among others. These works include portraits of colonial officials, conversation pieces of British families and their servants, portraits of Native Americans and Anglo-Indians, and botanical illustrations produced by Calcutta artists for officials of the British Botanic Gardens. In addition to examining the strategies that colonizers employed to dominate and define their subjects, Tobin uncovers the tactics of negotiation, accommodation, and resistance that make up the colonized’s response to imperial authority. By focusing on the paintings’ cultural and political engagement with imperialism, she accounts for their ideological power and visual effect while arguing for their significance as agents in the colonial project.
Pointing to the complexity, variety, and contradiction within colonial art, Picturing Imperial Power contributes to an understanding of colonialism as a collection of social, economic, political, and epistemological practices that were not monolithic and inevitable, but contradictory and contingent on various historical forces. It will interest students and scholars of colonialism, imperial history, postcolonial history, art history and theory, and cultural studies.


Picturing Imperial Power attracts interest by usefully creating a bridge between disciplines; it is well written, well illustrated, and historically intriguing in promising new insights on the well-traversed subject of colonialism.” — Max Quanchi , Journal of World History

“[A] strikingly successful study that will be of lasting interest to historians of Britain and the British Empire and to historians of art.” — David Armitage , Journal of Interdisciplinary History

“[T]he questions that [Tobin] raises in this book, and the attention that she accords to little-known, intriguing material, will undoubtedly enliven the future course of this conversation.” — Chloe Chard , Albion

“The chapter on cultural cross-dressing by British officials in North America would contribute an interesting perspective to either an art hisory or colonial history course. Creative museum curators are also sure to find kernels of provocative exhibitions for works previously relegated to storage.” — Sara Watson Parsons , The Art Book

“Tobin has given us the opportunity to extend our thinking about works that, with few exceptions, are little known even to art historians. Her arguments are provocative and conceptually rich, well-grounded theoretically and supported by substantial and wide-ranging empirical evidence in the form of an impressive array of contemporary sources. This is a must read not only for those engaged in postcolonial studies, but also for art historians and others interested in reformulating traditional approaches to art based on narrowly defined notions of the nation state.” — K. Dian Kriz , CAA Review

“While scholarly in content, these short essays are readable and could be included in an undergraduate syllabus. The volume is crisply edited; many of the essays refer to each other. I highly recommend the volume for college and graduate courses. The essays invite comparison of different regions, in addition to offering intriguing lessons about the multiple ways that identities evolved in the colonial era.” — Deborah Kanter , The Americas

Picturing Imperial Power offers quite wonderful readings of various visual cultural productions, illustrating beautifully the variety and complexity of British colonialism. A valuable and excellent book.” — Inderpal Grewal, author of Home and Harem: Nation, Gender, Empire and the Cultures of Travel

“Tobin combines an exacting and often lyrical evocation of visual effects in the paintings she considers with the explication of a remarkable range of historical occasions, situations, and transitions. Through her patient accounting of individual images, she opens up wide vistas on the operations of British colonialism while still rendering those operations with dimensionality and great nuance.”
  — Jill Campbell, author of Nature’s Masques: Gender and Identity in Fielding’s Plays and Novels


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Beth Fowkes Tobin is Professor of English Literature at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction: Toward a Cultural History of Colonialism 1

Bringing the Empire Home: The Black Servant in Domestic Portraiture 27

Native Land and Foreign Desires: William Penn's Treaty with the Indians 56

Cultural Cross-Dressing in British America: Portraits of British Officers and Mohawk Warriors 81

Accomodating India: Domestic Arrangements in Anglo-Indian Family Portraiture 110

Taxonomy and Agency in Brunias's West Indian Paintings 139

Imperial Designs: Botanical Illustration and the British Botanic Empire 174

The Imperial Politics of the Local and the Universal 202

Notes 227

Selected Bibliography 279

Index 301
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Winner, Best Single-Authored Work in Category of Pre-1800 Topics, Historians of British Art

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2338-9 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2305-1
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