Home > Art Blog > Thais Pose; Farangs Draw – The Portraits of Thai People in the Former Time

Thais Pose; Farangs Draw - The Portraits of Thai People in the Former Time

Artblog by Taw Naen

While I was loitering among the portraits in some European museums, I usually saw a number of key figure portraits decorating along the walls and the corridors until there’s no space left. Some of them dressed differently, but, when I took a closer look, I felt astounded. This is because those portraits were drawn 500-600 years ago which could be at the same time as the beginning of the Ayudhaya era, the former capital city of Thailand. In fact, to have a portrait in those countries was common among people because portrait drawing practice started 3,000 years ago. Some might say it started in the Egyptian era, and this kind of drawing has been widespread throughout the western empires including Greek and Roman kingdoms. Hence, the portrait has been recognized as a kind of painting that has been developed during the course of time.

According to Thai culture in the old time, it is believed that the model of the portrait will be mentally retarded and will have a short lifespan. Moreover, his portrait will be spellbound by black magic. To own a portrait could cause a disastrous effect on the owner at that time. Consequently, portrait painting was unpopular in Thailand, so we didn’t know what our ancient looked like. Their portraits we perceive nowadays are painted according to the hearsay while some were created based on the western record during that time or based on imagination.

The tragic belief of being a model was gradually disappeared in 1856 that was the same period as King Rama IV Mongkut The Great’s time. It was the time of western culture influx. He, the King, realized that it was time to develop Thailand to be well accepted among the Europeans, so he broadened his mind to the different customs and cultures. Additionally, he was the first one who had his own portraits by the westerns because this style of painting was quite new to Thai artists. Thus, all of his portraits were done by western artists.

For a while during the reign of King Rama V, King Chulalongkorn, he ordered to build palaces and several buildings with European Style. Not only were the buildings constructed like the western, but the interiors were also decorated in a similar style. Although there was a large amount of furniture, it was not enough the enrich the sense of the palace like what it was in European countries. Therefore, some decorative objects like vases, jars, and sculptures, are essential elements to fill in. Most importantly, an oil portrait with a gorgeous frame was not to be missed, so the king shipped his photographs and his family’s to the European artists to draw a number of oil-painted portraits for posting on the empty walls in the palace. Hundred years ago, it was difficult to order an oil-paint portrait abroad. Besides the dear price, the artist needed to have an actual model in front of him. If the artist didn’t have the actual model in his front, the model needed to ship his photograph to the artist. Unfortunately, the camera at that time could produce a very dim picture, so the expensive clothing, jewelry, and accessories needed to be shipped with the photograph without any fear of loss. This is because the artist never saw the real Thai costume. Should he have the real one with him, he will be able to paint the portrait with correct details. The artists, who served the Thai Royal Family, were John Marius Fugee, Theodor Shoemaker, Alexader Bassano, and more. Some unknown French artists needed to be done in further research as they didn’t sign their names on the portraits.

Since owning portraits became the King’s favorite, while he was making his journey to European countries in 1897 and 1906, he visited many studios to be a model for his portrait paintings. Some artists took such a long time to complete whereas some required the king to revisit their studios several times. The foreign artists who served the royal task were Edouardo Gelli, Michele Gordijiany, and Charles Auguste Émile Durand. Moreover, the king hired some artists to work with the Thai Royal family such as Cesare Ferro.

Meanwhile, the king granted royal patronage to some Thai artists to learn drawing and painting skills in European style in order to introduce the modern art style for the Thai art circle. One of the artists who were under the royal patronage was Phra Sorralucklikit who was lucky enough to take part in the trip to Europe with the king two times, so he could perceive and remember the drawing and painting techniques from the European artists by the back door. Of course, he was trained by Cesare Ferro while working in Thailand. As well as this, Phra Sorralucklikit had a chance to learn art in Italy, so he could draw and paint the king’s portraits which looked more realistic and lively.

After King Rama VI accessed the throne, he was also interested in art like his father, King Rama V.  There were so many artists working for him such as Galileo Chini and Carlo Rigoli because there were several construction projects in Thailand. One of the projects was the construction of Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall which started building in the reign of King Rama V and was expected to finish in his time. Not only did the artists paint the picture in the building, but they also had chances to draw the portraits of the king.

This ignited the preference of the portraits among the aristocrats, civil servants, and the people. They were likely to own some awesome portraits for themselves. Owing to high demand, there was the offspring of Thai artists who started to practice drawing like the Europeans and made a lot of money. The famous Thai artists at that time were Phra Sorralucklikit, Khun Praserthattakig, and Khun Tepapijit who were usually hired by the royal decree. When there were enough artists with the finest skill, there was no need to hire a lot of foreign artists like before.

The royal portraits and some aristocrats’ by Thai artists from the pioneer time have been well preserved in the palaces. Some aristocrats’ portraits have been passed to their heirs. If the people feel like seeing these portraits, they have to go to the Bangkok National Museum at the foot of Prapinkloa Bridge. There are copious portraits made by the European and Thai artists who learned by the back door. In some rooms, the portraits from both countries hang side by side like the contest whether which ones are the winners. Why don’t you visit the museum to see those portraits whether you can identify which ones are made by Thais or which are made by foreigners?

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