History And Context
In 1911, Maurice Sterne left Europe and traveled to India. He was looking for inspiration from cultures that had yet been fully explored by the West. He spent eight months in British India, traveling around the country and painting from a small boat that took him up and down the Ganges. During his extended sojourn, Sterne stayed in Benares, today known as Vanarasi, in northeastern India. His time in Benares was a particularly spiritual experience, as the Hindu religion permeated every aspect of life. Sterne recalled, “It was not until I got to Benares that I became aware that something new had entered my own spirit, that India was more to me that a mere exotic stimulation of my senses, more that another experience to remember. It had entered into my own spirit and altered, by some mysterious process, my inner life and reactions.”
Sterne painted Benares in 1912, shortly before he departed India due to an outbreak of plague. The painting is meant to be an accurate reflection of daily Indian life. Sterne noted that in India there was a contradiction in daily life: “noise, raucous color and poverty on one hand; deep spiritual peace on the other.” In the painting, Sterne has flatted the perspective, believing that it ruins the sinuous rhythm of art, and has depicted figures on several levels and different distances on one flat picture plane. His gestural brushwork and bright palette of reds and yellows with gleaming whites, against a swirling backdrop, capture the constant hum of life in Benares. The clean white robes of the priests stand out against a muddy background and the huddled masses of figures juxtapose the poverty against religion that Sterne was attempting to capture.