Reverse Glass Painting

hindu aesthetic
6 min readJan 29, 2024


The Coronation of Rāma, Tanjore, late 19th/early 20th century; gouache and gold on glass

The technique of reverse glass painting is said to have originated in Italy, from where it spread out all over Europe in the 15th century to become a thriving folk art and cottage industry. From Europe it then migrated to China, becoming a part of the export trade back to the West. Reverse glass paintings were then popularly comissioned in China, usually at the port city of Cantin, and exported to Europe and North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. The reverse glass paintings of the “China Trade” were done from sketches, oils or engravings, serving the interests of both painter and consumer. To the painter reverse glass painting offered the advantage of permitting him to dispose of a painting immediately after he had completed it. By putting a wooden backing on the painting, the artist could protect the paint and need not wait until it had dried to sell his work. This permitted a more rapid turnover and greater financial gain. The consumer enjoyed the fact that reverse glass paintings were easy to clean and care for; he need only wipe the surface of the glass with no fear of damaging the paint on its back. The subjects of the reverse glass painting of the “China Trade” were as varied as the art of the period, and included mythological scenes, portraits, landscapes and hunting scenes. In Eastern Europe, independent of this “China Trade”, reverse glass painting had become the favoured medium for votive pictures. The paintings could be finished quickly and sold in great numbers at the sites of pilgrimage. The glass had the added attraction of reflecting the scant light in the dark rooms of the peasant homes. Reverse glass paintings of saints, holy places and miracles were made in great number throughout Europe from 1700 A.D.

Glass painting is thought to have been introduced to India in the late eighteenth century by Chinese artists (Archer 1992: 191–192). Jaya Appasamy discussed the development of glass painting as a derivative form of Company painting, which emerged in India during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a result of the influence of Europeans on Indian artists. When the British extended their empire to include India, the reverse glass paintings of the then flourishing “China Trade” found a new market in the wealthy Indian potentates who sought to emulate the British colonial officers.

The art scene was further complicated by the new European influences that made themselves felt during this period. A number of European artists, trained in the academic manner took to visiting India from the last quarter of the eighteenth century. These professional painters, not particularly well-known in England were lured to this country by the prospect of lucrative careers in a new land. They hoped that in colonial India, they would find patrons not only among the colonial officials whose reputation of affluence (buttressed by the lavish life styles of the ‘nabobs’ back in England) excited the imagination of all fortune-seekers; but also among the princes and aristocrats who might pay handsomely for commissions. These artists set the trend for paintings in the European academic tradition. By the 1830s a considerable volume of work was produced by these professional artists. British officials introduced their favourite artists to the princes. The new art of portrait painting in the European manner was not only a novel way of enhancing their self-image, but also a means to pleasing the colonial power. Just as the European artefacts of material culture, like imported furniture, glassware, clocks, lamps and mirrors were being used in larger numbers by the princes, so was European art being patronised more and more. The professional artists’ work was instrumental in popularising European art not only amongst the princes but also among the rising urban middle-class.

Another body of paintings were produced by amateur painters, British officials, merchants, and ladies who sketched and painted landscapes, monuments, historical events, festivals and village scenes. These subjects appealed to the Victorian sensibility and belonged to the category of ‘picturesque”. This type of artists, though amateurs were full of talent, though they may not have been as influential in changing Indian taste in art.

In India, this led to the emergence of the distinct Company style, which represented an effort by Indian artists to adapt their traditional techniques, media and subject matter to suit the tastes of Europeans in India and compete with the European artists during the 18th and 19th centuries. As many of the chief patrons of this new school were employees of the East India Company, therefore the style came to be known collectively as Company painting. The technique of painting on glass is closely related to the Company style. Thus, the glass paintings, have a combined Indian and British heritage.

Mildred Archer’s research has found that Company paintings were first produced in the Madras Presidency in southern India during the first half of the eighteenth century. The primary centres for production were in Madras, Tanjore, Trichinopoly, Srirangam, Pudukkottai and Madura. In particular, the distinctive style of Tanjore artists influenced contemporaries in Madras, Trichinopoly and Pudukkottai. It is possible that paintings by Tanjore artists may also have been traded in other southern towns or produced by artists from Tanjore who had migrated to towns in search of work. These paintings were often produced in sets and purchased as souvenirs by British travellers who visited temples in the area. Following the success of Company painting in southern India, the style appeared in the east in the last quarter of the eighteenth century and in the north at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Company painting did not appear in western India, especially Bengal, until the second quarter of the nineteenth century. The style was most popular in western and southern India, although examples were produced in regional styles in the northern states of Utter Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar and Bengal. Over time, Company paintings appeared in all of the main centres in India that possessed significant British communities, those on reverse glass being a portion of them.

Indian artists who produced Company paintings gained a greater understanding of British tastes through apprenticeships with Company servants, direct instruction from other artists, and the study of prints and watercolours. They primarily produced works on paper but also used ivory, mica, cloth, wood and glass. Popular subject matter for Company paintings included architecture, occupations, costumes, court scenes, transportation, religious festivals and sometimes, Hindu deities and temples.

Brahma attended by Viṣṇu and Śiva on the right and Garuḍa on the left, Tanjore, ca. 1860. gouache on glass. Victoria and Albert Museum

Local artists adopted the technique to create inexpensive devotional paintings for the middle and lower classes, which were often sold at pilgrimage centres and sometimes purchased by Europeans. In particular, a school of glass painting developed in Tanjore and was in existence until the beginning of the twentieth century. Traditional Tanjore iconography and elements were adapted to glass paintings, characterised by the use of bold colours, decorated in gold leaf and imitation gems — as the one seen in the accompanying images.


  1. Granoff, Phyllis. “Reverse Glass Paintings from Gujarat in a Private Canadian Collection: Documents of British India.” Artibus Asiae 40, no. 2/3 (1978): 204–14.
  3. SARODE, MAHESH. “A RARE GLASS-PAINTING OF MAHISHASURMARDINI, MAHARASHTRA.” Bulletin of the Deccan College Research Institute 58/59 (1998): 175–80.


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