Cartography and Fine Art: Research for a Commission

I’ve been commissioned to create a map of India that has a slightly “antique” look to it. While my instructions are solely aesthetic, as a conscientious ex-art history student, I cannot proceed before doing the bare minimum research.

Here’s a (basic) definition of cartography to start with:

Cartography (from Greek χάρτης khartēs, “map”; and γράφειν graphein, “write”) is the study and practice of making maps. Combining science, aesthetics, and technique, cartography builds on the premise that reality can be modeled in ways that communicate spatial information effectively.

Here’s (an even more basic) definition of Fine Art:

One definition of fine art is “a visual art considered to have been created primarily for aesthetic and intellectual purposes and judged for its beauty and meaningfulness, specifically, painting, sculpture, drawing, watercolor, graphics, and architecture.”

Although the historical purpose of cartography has been to define and locate places, or rather, to share information about the location of specific places, cartography developed its own “language” & aesthetic serving both political and aesthetic purposes.

When the “Age of Exploration” began in earnest maps became important political tools for European powers. A consensus of territory and property rights was critical in their scramble for both knowledge and economic power. As a tool that defined political power, maps, when presented as artwork conferred an abstract territorial power on their owners that may not be obvious through verbal communication alone.

Examples of "artistic" maps as symbols of Colonial Power
Examples of “artistic” maps as symbols of Colonial Power

For example, in this blog post, Popova describes how the above map, commissioned by the British East India Company, signifies Britain’s role as heir to the Portugese empire from the time of Marco Polo.

From here on, I decided to look at the aesthetics of cartography.  Since, I’ve been commissioned to look at maps of India, I decided to look up “illustrated” maps of India to look for that “antiquated” aesthetic I was asked to emulate.

Map of Hindostan, or British India

I then decided to look at a few modern interpretations of Indian Maps, just to incorporate the viewpoint of contemporary India into an aesthetic referencing antiquity

Topographically accurate map

This next one is particularly beautiful as a piece of art, though I cannot speak to its representative integrity

Beautiful Travel Poster of India

The aim of my project is to combine the precision of the older maps with the color/visual appeal of the map above.



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