Eighteenth-century natural-history illustration in the Dutch East Indies reveals verisimilitude as a goal shared between colonial artists and their counterparts in Europe. Natural-history images more generally exhibit common styles in the world settled and dominated by Europeans. Apparently dramatic differences in the local settings of the artists produced only trivial variations in representing nature pictorially, in just the way that astronomy and physics in the European colonies and spheres of influence departed hardly at all from European practice. The overwhelming strength of disciplinary norms, in science and in art, is the standard explanation for this circumstance. An alternative explanation from social history is proposed. It centers on the hypothesis of a homology between households in colonial settings and in Europe. The alternative explanation implies that both the observatory and the artist's workshop were insensitive to superstructural variation in costume and architecture, as well as variation in climate and cuisine. The hypothesis behind the alternative explanation, designated by the term complementarity, derives directly from the postmodernist dictum that ideas are extrusions of social interactions. Nevertheless, just as the strength of disciplinary norms is unresolved in postmodernist doctrine, so complementarity directly challenges the postmodernist predilection for affirming the distinctiveness of colonial cultures.
- social history
- exact sciences
- colonial exceptionalism
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