Art, Science, and Diplomacy in French India


A review of Mercantile Aesthetics: Art, Science, and Diplomacy in French India (1664-1761), by Liza Oliver.

This dissertation unravels the meaning of South Indian textiles in the world of trade, politics and knowledge production in French India in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Oliver, an art historian, suggests that as these often ornate and elaborately worked pieces of cloth traveled across the Indian Ocean and between India and France, they accrued different meanings and values with the changing social, economic and political contexts. The textile industry serves here as a lens through which to examine the long-standing relationships between French newcomers and local actors, and how these relationships gave rise to new forms of aesthetics, scientific knowledge, and diplomatic exchanges.

The dissertation is comprised of three chapters. The first chapter, “The Threads that Bind: South Asian Textiles and Networks of Exchange Between France and India,” offers an account of the kinds of textiles woven in South India, and their economic, social and spiritual uses. It then moves to describe how these textiles were used and appreciated in France, and the processes by which French preferences were accommodated in the production of Indian textiles. Oliver suggests that we should not ascribe to French consumers an Orientalizing attitude that erased all differences in favor of the cruder categories of “exotic” or “other.” Rather, French men and women tended to lump together goods from China with those from India as the result of the geographically-determined trade routes of the Compagnie des Indes: goods from China arrived in France after a stop in India, and the categorical mix-up was a reflection of the mixing together of these commodities in the ships that delivered them to Europe. This interpretation is part of a broader effort in which Oliver engages, to note the ways in which “Orientalism” (the term suggested by Edward Said’s Orientalism [New York: Vintage Books, 1979]) is not a suitable lens with which to understand relationships between Europe and Asia in the eighteenth century, a period in which European empires did not hold the clear advantage of power.

The chapter finds a paradox in the French appreciation of Indian textiles, particularly the case study of guinea cloth. As wealthy French men clothed themselves with robes of Indian guinea cloth as a sign of their global success and cosmopolitan discernment, the very same guinea cloth was traded in vast amounts in Africa to enable the slave trade, and often used to clothe slaves and mark them as property. Taken together, the chapter makes a contribution to the scholarship on “the social lives of things” (a term coined by Arjun Appadurai, The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), by demonstrating how South Asian textiles took on various meanings and values in different contexts.

The second chapter, “Coromandel Craft and European Natural History: Lessons Learned and Lost in Mutual Intelligibility Across Cultures” shows how the textile industry allowed the production and dissemination of scientific botanical knowledge through the collaboration of French and South Asian scholars, botanists, physicians and artisans. This chapter follows in the footsteps of historian Kapil Raj, especially his article “Surgeons, Fakirs, Merchants, and Craftspeople: Making L’Empereur’s Jardin in Early Modern South Asia,” (in Kapil Raj, Relocating Modern Science. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillian, 2010, pp. 252-69). The chapter focuses on a botanical manuscript titled Jardin de Lorixa, (Garden of Orissa), commissioned by Nicolas L’Empereur, a French physician employed by the Compagnie des Indes early in the eighteenth century. This compendium of Orissa’s natural life exemplifies the intersection of scientific knowledge, aesthetic production, and the textile industry, since L’Empereur commissioned textile painters to produce the botanical illustrations. Oliver offers formal analysis of the images, and argues that the manuscript represents a period of collaboration and mutual intelligibility, of a kind not allowed by later, British “high colonialism.”

Here Oliver participates in a wave of scholarship that has shown that the creation of modern science was a global process, and one in which knowledge produced and categorized outside of Western Europe played a crucial part. Oliver’s central contribution to this literature is in showing how aesthetic choices made by South Asian artisans – many of them textile workers – was central to the process of acquiring and disseminating knowledge about Indian botany. Because such artisans created visual depictions of the natural world, they were able to produce artifacts that were, she suggests, largely intelligible to European viewers – much more so than knowledge encoded in written or verbal forms in South Asian languages, known by very few Europeans.

The final chapter, “Shifting Terrains: The Use and Abuse of Images and Material Artefacts in the Evolving Coromandel,” examines how material and aesthetic objects mediated the relationships between European and South Asian actors. The chapter offers an account of the Tamil intermediary Ananda Ranga Pillai, who served as the chief commercial broker in Pondichéry in the mid-eighteenth century, and is well-known for his voluminous personal diary. Oliver examines the material artifacts left behind by Ananda Ranga Pillai, such as his mansion, portrait, and inventories of goods he owned, as well as a biography he commissioned. She argues that Ananda Ranga Pillai’s self-fashioning was two-dimensional: he presented himself as transnational and cosmopolitan on the one hand, yet deeply rooted in local South Asian traditions on the other. This chapter also examines French iconoclasm of Hindu deities and temples in Pondichéry. Finally, the chapter looks at gifting practices to make the argument that the changing nature of French gifts to local rulers – from textiles and objects to land and money – is an instantiation of a broader shift. Oliver argues that the eighteenth century saw French policy and ambitions in India shift from mercantilism to imperialism.

South Indian textiles have been largely absent from mainstream art historical conversations, in both Europe and India. The textiles provide a rich material archive bearing the traces of a myriad of actors – farmer and weavers, dyers and printers, and traders and diplomats of a wide array of origins. Crucially, all these actors had to build, foster and sustain long-term commitments. Oliver’s dissertation demonstrates that long-standing cross-cultural relationships – rather than brief encounters – are key to understanding a global system of cultural and material exchanges.

Danna Agmon
Virginia Tech

Primary Sources
Archives nationales, Paris
Bibliothèque du Muséum national d’histoire naturelle, Paris
Nicolas L’Empereur. “Ellemans botanique des plante du Jardin de Lorixa.”

Dissertation Information
Northwestern University. 2014. 391 pp. Primary Advisor: S. Hollis Clayson.

Image: Indian, Coromandel Coast, Hanging Depicting a European Conflict in South India, kalamkari cotton (drawn and painted resist and mordant, dyed), 271.8 x 251.5 cm. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (

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