By Dick van der Meij
The young Payen - he was 23 years old - had been chosen as apparently no other painter could be found who was willing to accept the challenge. Payen, who just happened to be looking for a better job, accepted the position. In Payen's time the Indies were not terribly attractive. Only fortune hunters and "scum" went out there - apart from officials of the Dutch Government. Travelling about freely was impossible and the place was considered nasty anyway, by most. Throughout the time he spent in the Indies, like many people of his time, he kept diaries.
Biography of Payen
Marie-Odette Scalliet, who has just defended her thesis entitled: Antoine Payen, Peintre des Indes orientales. Vie et écrits d'un artiste du XIXe siècle (1792-1853), believes it is not the exceptional quality of Payen's artistry which makes this man interesting. What makes him fascinating is that his sketches, drawings, paintings, have survived along with his diaries. Since he worked for the Dutch Government his artistic output in the Indies, and after his return to Belgium, were considered state property. At present this and his diaries are kept in the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde (National Museum for Ethnology) in Leiden. Marie-Odette Scalliet has edited and annotated the diaries Payen wrote between 1817 and 1826. By way of an introduction she has written a complete biography of the artist. The book is supplemented by an inventory of all his drawings and paintings. Besides a selection of the drawings, all known paintings are illustrated as well.
There had been draughtsmen in the Indies before Payen, especially those concerned with drawing natural history specimens, plants, shells and such, and portrait painters, but no landscape painter. Payen enjoyed considerable freedom. At that time, travel was restricted and nobody was allowed to travel without a permit. Payen was one of the first to roam freely around the Priangan area of West Java. Also he journeyed through the Priangan with Prof. C.G.C. Reinwardt in 1819 and in 1824 he was one of a party which accompanied Governor-General G.AS.G.P. van den Capellen on his tour of inspection to the Moluccas and Sulawesi. Other highlights of his career in the Indies were the eruption of the volcano Mt. Galunggung in West Java in 1822 and, of course, the outbreak of the so-called Java War in 1825. Payen's diary of this event was edited by Peter Carey in 1988 (Voyage à Djocja-karta en 1825. The Outbreak of the Java war as seen by a Painter. Cahiers d'Archipel no. 17, Paris 1988).
Why Payen was chosen to go to the Indies is a puzzle which Marie-Odette Scalliet was unable to solve. He was a French-speaking Belgian, so why could no Dutch painter be found? Of course Belgium and Holland were one nation at the time, but the choice is still somewhat peculiar. Perhaps the established Dutch painters were not interested. Whatever the case, it was Payen who went. He left his sweetheart, Pauline, behind for 10 years and when he finally came back she died eleven months later while giving birth to his daughter. He married again two years later, but this wife died two years later. His third wife, Pauline's youngest sister, survived him!
Payen was a child of his time. He was fascinated by natural history and, as well as making paintings and drawings, he also put together a collection of birds and insects. The collection of insects is at present preserved in the Musée d'Histoire Naturelle in Tournai, where it is permanently on display. There is even a butterfly which bears his name (Papilio payeni or Dabasa payeni). The collection of birds went to the Institut Royal des Sciences Naturelles de Belgique in Brussels, but is not preserved as an apart collection. The birds have been dispersed among birds from other collections. He also collected a number of Malay Hikayat texts which are kept at the Bibliothèque Royale Albert 1er in Brussels. These were probably copied for him, as they all have the same date: 1823. The diaries are of a factual nature but they are first and foremost unique documents. There is little literary value and Payen speaks straight from his heart and whatever he wrote is dependable. He only wrote about what he himself had seen or experienced. There are only a few witnesses from this particular time who wrote about their daily lives in this manner. The man Payen comes over as a sympathetic, friendly person who dis not take himself too seriously, who loved the Indies and was happy there. In fact, had he not been engaged to Pauline he might never have come back to Europe at all. Payen also enjoys some fame as the teacher of the Javanese boy Raden Salèh who later became the well-known painter. Raden Salèh stayed with him in Bogor and Bandung, and who later visited him in Tournai during the many years he spent in Europe.
Marie-Odette Scalliet has spent 6 years of her life studying this painter. She became absolutely absorbed in her subject and the result is a book of more than 900 pages. She became so infatuated that a small anecdote she happened to mention should be passed on.
One day, while touring around by bicycle with her two children, Saskia and Tristan, she happened to pass the villa "Voorlinden" in Wassenaar. This was the country house of the former Commissionary-General and Minister for Colonies: C.Th. Elout. Payen happened to have visited Elout at Voorlinden in 1828. Immediately she exclaimed laughingly: "Payen was here!! Children kiss the ground!"