Before traveling around the world from 1836 to 1840, Auguste Borget (1808-1877) was a pupil in Paris of the artist Théodore Gudin (1802-1880), an official painter of the French Royal Navy. Auguste Borget’s journey first took him to North and South America, to China where he stayed for a long time, and then to the Philippines before finally sailing from Singapore to India in 1839. In January 1840, he visited Calcutta and began walking along the banks of the Ganges river. There he met William Prinsep (1794-1874), an English painter with whom he shared the same naturalistic way of catching local scenes. Borget found it difficult to get rid of his neoclassical aestheticism however, and his depiction of the Ganges oscillates between academic style and veracity.
Borget’s attraction for regions which had yet to be well described, either by geographers through maps, by philologists with dictionaries and grammar, or by artists and writers as travelers, was a bet. Would it bring glory? Since the rediscovery of the sacred Sanskrit texts by William Jones (1746-1794), the Western public was fascinated by pre-biblical culture. Its anteriority led contemporaries to believe that they were reaching out to the origins of humanity. It was therefore important for Borget to experience such places in person. To do so meant searching for the specificity of those distant places, the warm tones of Eastern climates, and their vast horizon lines. It must not look like the Fontainebleau forest, near Paris!
The painting Morning in Benares, which was exhibited at the Salon in 1851 (32,5 cm x 52,5 cm), is a good example of Auguste Borget’s approach. He produced such paintings in his workshop, upon his return to France. Charles Baudelaire, the famous poet and art critic, reviewed this particular work. In his opinion it was “very well done, but there are too much focus on travel objects and customs”. Furthermore, he regrets the systematic capture of an exotic feel. Baudelaire recognizes Borget’s quality of knowing how to catch “the wind that shakes the bells,” and criticizes his excessive use of his technical skills. Baudelaire would have preferred a more adventurous artistic depiction, one that captures a real-life immediacy. The sketches ultimately bring, what Borget, and other artists such as Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) and Jean-Baptiste Corot (1796-1875) did in their travelogue, but that they did not exhibit publicly because they considered them as drafts and not finished works. Some of Borget’s sketches show that he went further up the Ganges as far as Kandahar and Kabul.
The famous French writer Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), a good friend of Auguste Borget, thought that it would have been better if the painter had just stayed at home, locked up in his studio like Rembrandt, working on art rather than travelling.
Public interest in the painting can be confirmed, as it was engraved and reproduced in the famous weekly newspaper L’Illustration (1856).