More than 50 prints of India that helped shape European and American views of Indian ascetics, deities and religious ceremonies will enter the Archives of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
, the Smithsonian's museums of Asian art, as a gift from collector Robert J. Del Bontà.
The prints, which include engravings, etchings, aquatints, lithographs, printed books and photographs -- many of which are brilliantly hand-colored -- trace the evolution of Western fascination with Indian culture throughout the past 500 years.
Amassed during the past four decades, Del Bontà's collection is the only one of its kind, focusing on representations of India in the European and American imagination. His bequest creates the first publicly available resource for the study of print culture's central role in generating and circulating knowledge about India between the 16th and the 20th centuries.
"This exceptional collection is an extraordinary foundation for scholars seeking to trace how images established both knowledge and stereotypes of India," said Debra Diamond, associate curator of south and southeast Asia at the Freer and Sackler galleries. "The prints not only reveal how the West became progressively more interested in India, they make us consider that there is a mechanism by which images acquire the value of truth."
Highlights include scenes of gods, temples and supplicants drawn from a 1723 publication of early comparative religion, hand-colored prints by the famous satirist Thomas Rowlandson revealing impassioned British debates on imperialism and a 1943 cover of the Saturday Evening Post featuring an American G.I. in India by Norman Rockwell.
"I'm especially interested in how Europeans attempted to fully understand India and how the relationship between the two cultures transformed over time," said Del Bontà.
"They're also simply beautiful. The best artists at important book-producing centers were involved in their creation, often for sumptuous publications."
Del Bontà -- a polymath scholar, curator, collector and jeweler -- began to collect prints related to India while completing his doctorate in South Asian art history at the University of Michigan in the 1970s. His extensive collection now includes several thousand loose and bound prints, meticulously cataloged and stored in his San Francisco home. It spans genres from Indian calendar prints, ephemera, painting and sculpture to British Raj-era publications and subjects such as ornament, flora and fauna, Indian ascetics, deities and religious ceremony.
Works from Del Bontà's collection were most recently exhibited in "Strange and Wondrous: Prints of India from the Robert J. Del Bontà Collection" at the Sackler Oct. 19, 2013-Jan. 5. A few key selections are currently on tour with the museum's blockbuster exhibition "Yoga: The Art of Transformation," on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art June 22-Sept. 7.
The Archives of the Freer and Sackler galleries contain more than 140 collections -- almost 1,000 linear feet of material -- and are dedicated to furthering the study of Asian and Middle Eastern art and culture. They hold rich and diverse materials such as the personal and professional papers of preeminent art historians, archaeologists, artists, dealers, and collectors, plus major collections of 19th- and early 20th-century photography of Asia and the Middle East.