It was a truly exciting moment for me when I discovered that the DMA held a batik produced by “THE” Eliza van Zuylen. Owning one of van Zuylen’s exquisite hand-drawn cloths was a privilege that only very wealthy women in 19th-century colonial Indonesia enjoyed. With the average wage of a government employee being twenty guilders a month, and a van Zuylen sarong costing around thirteen guilders, these batiks were comparable to a Chanel bag or Louboutin shoes today. Adorned with European-style flower bouquets, hence buketan-style batik, the cloths were wrapped around the waist and combined with fashionable lace-trimmed blouses called kebayas.
Mainly produced by women in their home and for their private use, Javanese batik underwent a process of commercialization in the late 19th century. In addition to Peranakan Chinese, several Indo-European women on the north coast of the island established batik workshops, often to supplement their husband’s income. Mostly middle class, these women, who were of European and Asian, Chinese, or Arab origin, were situated in between the local Javanese population and the Dutch colonial society. Their intermediary position allowed them to create batik for several societal groups, including the Indo-European, Peranakan Chinese, and upper-class Javanese.
Eliza van Zuylen was one of these women; she was born in 1863 in Batavia (Jakarta) as the daughter of a Dutch soldier and an Indo-European woman. After her husband, Alphons van Zuylen, was appointed as government inspector in Pekalongan, she moved to this north coast city, which, since the 1850s, was an important batik production center. After helping in her sister Christina’s batik workshop, van Zuylen opened her own business in 1890. Starting off with just three Javanese batik makers, her workshop was very prosperous and expanded quickly, by 1918 becoming the largest Indo-European batik business in the whole of Java. Her workshop ended up being the only Indo-European batik business to survive the economic depression of the 1930s.
The batik designs, inspired by Dutch horticultural books, imported European flowers, and European fairytales, were created by Eliza van Zuylen herself and then drawn on the cloth with hot wax by her batik makers. Provided the wax drawing met van Zuylen’s expectations, she added her signature to the cloth and allowed it to be dyed. Together with a stamp from her workshop, this signature guaranteed the authenticity of the batik. Not only was the habit of signing batiks, which had been introduced by Indo-European batik entrepreneurs such as van Zuylen, meant to help protect patterns, but it also functioned as an advertisement.
A gift from former Museum director Jerry Bywaters, this beautiful sarong entered the DMA’s collection in 1982. The signature “E v Zuylen” and the stamp stating “Batikkerij Mevr. E. van Zuylen, Pekalongan” prove that this batik was made in van Zuylen’s workshop. The beige and blue color combination, in this case probably achieved with indigo, is referred to as kelengan and was popular among both Indo-European and Peranakan Chinese women on the north coast. The body, or badan, of the cloth is decorated with three flowering twigs along with birds and butterflies. This motif is repeated on the head, or kepala, but on a contrasting dark background. The pattern fields and the edges of the cloth are decorated with floral lace borders. Such a batik would have been suitable for a young Indo-European bride on her wedding night, with the beige symbolizing her purity and the lovebirds referring to marriage.
Elisabeth Seyerl is the McDermott Graduate Curatorial Intern for African and Asian Art at the DMA.