You’re at a party.

It’s getting a bit boring.

Someone suggests a game of cards or – if you move in astrologically-inclined circles – offers to read fortunes.

The host produces a deck.

As they slide the cards out of the box, you expect to see the familiar visages of king, queen and jack – primary-coloured, angular icons denoting mediaeval European nobility.

Instead, you find yourself looking at a completely different court – men in jamas, women in cholis, adorned with jewellery and accessorised with parakeets and pakhawajs. Yet the colour tones are rather un-subcontintental, and the features rendered in the simplified lines of early graphic design.

Turns out, you’re looking at a rare set of vintage playing cards: a series called Cartes Indiennes issued towards the end of the 19th century by one of the biggest European playing card manufacturers of the time. In her book A History of Playing Cards and a Bibliography of Cards and Gaming, Catherine Perry Hargrave describes this striking series as having “real artistic merit…most beautiful and unusual designing, lithographing and color”.

In dress, pose and iconography, the Cartes Indiennes’ courtiers recall the nobles and attendants of South Asian painting, most famously the Mughal miniatures. But the pastel colour palette, flatness and sleek figuration are modern, befitting their appearance on mass-produced print objects, the style belonging to late 19th-century Europe. The very title of the cards – Indiennes – alludes to printed textiles made in Europe based on Indian patterns. Precisely what makes these playing cards art historically interesting is their combination of Indian imagery with the visual language dominating fin de siécle Western art, resulting in a unique Art Nouveau darbar.

Visual cues

Little information has survived about these cards, such as who designed them or what the contemporary response to them was. Entries on the two complete decks in the collection of the Bibliothéque Nationale de France furnish scant details, namely the name of the manufacturer (B.P. Grimaud), the period of production (between 1890 and 1900), the process of production (chromolithography), the size (9.3 x 6.3 cm), and notes on the physical characteristics (“rounded corners and orange and gold spine” in one case and “square corners and green and gold spine” in the other). The artistic language of the cards is described in the entries as “Tarot back in Art Nouveau style with carnation pattern”. As for ownership, one of the decks belonged to Henry-René D’Allemagne, an archivist and historian of the decorative arts and author of Antique Playing Cards: A Pictorial History.

Given their relative scarcity, these cards command high prices on auction sites and generate much discussion in hobbyist communities, occasionally with illuminating results. Though the Bibliothéque entries only list the peach orange and mint green editions, on a message board called United Cardists, a collector with the username ‘acetofive’ recorded six different variations of the Cartes Indiennes deck that they had compiled at the time of posting in June 2020.

The compositions of the cards and the attire of the badshahs, begums and ghulams reference different periods and perhaps even regions. For instance, the framing of the figures includes profiles, three-quarter profiles and frontal depictions. The kings resemble portraits of Mughal emperors from different generations, and the queens seem to be modelled on images of women from the Mughal atelier as well as later representations from provincial schools.

Why did India become a source of inspiration for the design of popular French playing cards? And what does this choice of theme tell us about the age in which they were made?

Source of inspiration

Incidentally, the Mughals had an important influence in the history of playing cards, as well as that of their design. As the art critic Rudolf van Leyden speculated in his 1982 survey Ganjifa: Playing Cards of India, it was probably Babar who, in the 16th century, brought the Persian card game of ganjifa from Central Asia to India. However, in the story of Western playing cards, the Mughals played a more passive role, as branding symbols. According to Adam Wintle in his article The Great Mogul Playing Cards on the comprehensive World of Playing Cards website, in the 18th century, a major British card-maker called Christopher Blanchard registered a trademark called the Great Mogul. This became the focus of an intellectual property dispute that ended up weakening Blanchard’s exclusive claim on the design. Like their flesh and blood namesakes, the playing card Great Moguls turned out to be profitable business for foreign companies. Wintle makes the point that in the modern age, “Mogul playing cards were produced by various companies in different countries…in various qualities such as Court Moguls, Moguls, Oriental Moguls, Double Moguls, Floral Moguls and Great Moguls…”

One of these companies was B.P. Grimaud, a Parisian card-making firm established in 1851 by Baptiste-Paul Grimaud. In his account titled B.P. Grimaud, Or Cards in the Industrial Age, historian Thierry Depaulis says that within a decade of founding his company, Grimaud bought the patent and technology for “wafer” cards and the newly-invented metallic rounded corners – which, as the Bibliothéque records, the Cartes Indiennes also have. In this way, Grimaud contributed to the structure of the modern playing card deck as we know it today.

While playing cards have always been a site of cultural and political reflection, modern mass manufacturers of cards, like Grimaud, would have had to be responsive to the trends in visual arts popular among their potential customers. One of these trends in late 19th-century France, observes Hargrave, was “this idea of fancifully costumed court cards”, of which she cites Cartes Indiennes as an example. In terms of the aesthetic zeitgeist of the 1890s, the deck’s Art Nouveau idiom is entirely era-appropriate. Indeed, as the archives of the World of Playing Cards evince, the only illustrator for Grimaud whose name has survived was an exponent of that style – Gaston Quènioux, later a professor at the L’Ecole Nationale des Arts Décoratif. In 1900, he designed a vibrant deck for Grimaud, called Jeu Moyen Age, which went on to win the Grand Prix at the World’s Fair in Paris.

Made around the same time as the Jeu Moyen Age, the Cartes Indiennes too is an example of Art Nouveau, the style du jour (and jeu). The defining features of this aesthetic were modern interpretations of pre-industrial craftsmanship and the elevation of applied art – that is, decorative and graphic design – to the level of fine art. Art Nouveau also infused commercial art (such as playing card design) with a fresh sensibility, its stylised motifs and simplified figuration making it visually attractive for mass production. In her book Art Nouveau: Art, Architecture and Design in Transformation, Associate Lecturer at the Department of the History of Art at Birkbeck University Charlotte Ashby weighs in: “Manufacturing companies also began to commission new designs from artists and employ professional artists or architects as artistic directors. Art and design education, professional societies of designers and venues for the display and evaluation of applied art all provided the foundation for the rich development of the sector seen at the end of the nineteenth century and for Art Nouveau.”

À la mode

In the case of the Cartes Indiennes, the backgrounds to the figures are like contemporary wallpapers by William Morris, the British Arts and Crafts pioneer whose revivalist designs became a prompt for similar innovation in France and elsewhere. The corner indices (emblems denoting the card’s denomination) are garnished with classic Nouveau floral motifs based on Japanese wood-block prints. These ukiyo-e flora feature as ethereal backdrops to the pip cards as well, their fanned-out petals and botanical illustrations typical of the style. On the reverse of the cards, flowers embellish concentric roundels hosting suite symbols (spades, clubs, hearts or diamonds), ornamented by bold designs that hark back to ancient European patterns.

In fact, as is widely accepted today, Asia was mined for both form and content by Euro-American modernism. While the impact of Far Eastern aesthetics on late 19th-century movements like Art Nouveau is well-established, less attention has been paid to its consonance with Indo-Persian art. The latter’s floral arabesques, sumptuous fashions and traditions of schematic figuration certainly lend themselves to Nouveau treatment (in the opposite direction, Pakistani artist Abdur Rahman Chughtai’s oeuvre comes to mind as an exemplar of the blend.) In his essay Modernism’s Muse, which introduces the volume Mediating Magic: The Indian Presence in Modernism 1880-1930, Naman Ahuja, Professor of Visual Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, asks of the modernist encounter between India and a Europe embittered by colonialism, industrialisation and the impending WWI: “Was India a kind of enchanted world that preserved something lost in Europe?”

This quest for the exotic enlivened not just fine art in fin de siécle Europe – but also applied and commercial art. Independent scholar Sara J Oshinsky points to the mass appeal of foreign visuals in her essay Exoticism in the Decorative Arts for the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “By the end of the century, the exotic, as appropriated by the West, had become a mass-produced commodity in itself; exotic images were used to sell everything from cigarettes to candy.” The interest in costumed court cards like the Cartes Indiennes during this period that Hargrave remarked on is an example of this predilection.

Borrowings from the Eastern hemisphere were not always innocent exchanges. While Meiji Japan traded with the West on equal footing, West Asia, South Asia and North Africa were largely colonial territories of Europe, being constructed as the Other. For hundreds of years, Indian cultural artefacts had been circulating in Europe in the collections of individual travellers and elites, and of course as imperial booty. In the 19th century, opportunities to disseminate visual material from the colonies increased manifold due to what has been theorised as a modern “scopic regime”. This was catalysed by processes of mass production and public exhibition – for example, lithographic presses (which also produced playing cards), international expos and department stores producing or displaying wares from the Orient. British India itself was a major market for European card manufacturers, with renowned Belgian ones like Mesmaeker’s and Van Genechten exporting cards themed on Hindu deities and Indian rajas and ranis. By the early 1900s, the Ravi Varma Fine Art Lithographic Press and its successors were issuing playing cards with swadeshi figures.

B.P. Grimaud was probably just keeping up with the times when it published the Cartes Indiennes. In the years directly preceding these cards, visuals from India were regularly being shown and viewed in France. Sites of engagement would have been JJ Chabrelie’s L’Inde française (1825-1837), an ethnographic book of 144 lithographs on the people of French India; the first French exhibition of Islamic art in 1893 at Paris’ Palais de l’Industrie, which included Indian and Persian miniatures; the World’s Fair, Paris, 1889, at which the Indian pavilions exhibited decorative and wearable items; and the British department store Liberty & Co, which opened a Paris branch in 1889 and stocked wares from India, among other parts of Asia.

Of particular cultural significance is the Exposition d’Art Musulman of 1893. In his book Art, Colonialism and French North Africa, 1880-1930, Roger Benjamin, Professor of Art History at the University of Sydney, describes it thus: “The five thousand artifacts in the Palais de l’Industrie came from diverse collections from explorers…Islami notables…aristocrats and Orientalist painters.” Two important collectors of Asian art contributed works to the exhibition: the businessman Siegfried Bing and Louis Gonse, director of the Gazette des Beaux-Arts. Both of them contributed Indian and Persian miniatures which, going by the catalogue descriptions (in the absence of images), may have been the template for some of the Cartes Indiennes. It’s possible that the painting of the Sultan with Musicians on a Terrace furnished the pakhawaj for the jack of hearts and the Portrait of the Mughal Noble Rafi ud-Dajarat, the aigrette of a king.

Also at this time, the artist and historian Auguste Racinet published his magisterial six-volume survey of fashion, Le Costume Historique (1876-1888), with 500 chromolithographic plates. The illustrations of Mughals in the book would have been a rich source of detail for any card-maker looking to set up a court. An image of Shah Alam in profile holding a bird of prey bears a striking resemblance to the Indiennes’ king of hearts. But more than direct copies, it’s the repertoire of symbols, costuming and poses compiled by Racinet that may have been of use to the Grimaud illustrator(s). The Cartes Indiennes liberally quoted the Mughals’ feathered headdresses, flowers and birds in hand and conventionalised profiles. At the same time, there seems to have been familiarity with artworks from other parts of India. The headdress of the jack of spades could be from western or southern Indian kingdoms, while the natural habitat of the parakeet keeping the queen of diamonds company is Deccan painting. The frontal representations suggest knowledge of more contemporaneous developments in Indian painting, including perhaps photography.

Vintage playing cards offer a glimpse into the mainstream culture and everyday social life of the time they were made in, a kind of parlour view. Melding the portraiture of Indian court painting with Nouveau artistry, the Cartes Indiennes playing cards reveal the extent to which India had captured the West’s imagination. In the context of the modern commercial art and design boom propelled by mass production and exoticism fuelled by colonial domination, they typify the popular visual culture of turn-of-the-century Europe.

In the mid-1980s, the Cartes Indiennes were reissued with minor changes by the Venice-Simon Oriental Express. The allusion to the French Belle Epoque and bygone Indian royalty was an attempt to emphasise the train’s old world luxuriousness. The nostalgia for an age of beautiful, more carefully produced things that had sparked the Nouveau spirit a century earlier now kept its flame alive.

If, as in the hypothetical scenario with which this essay opened, you ever find yourself at a party with a Cartes Indiennes deck, you have one more option for what to do with them apart from games and cartomancy – a chance to simply attend an idiosyncratic court.

Kamayani Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and podcaster based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow in Visual Culture Writing for 2022.