Raden Salèh was born in Semarang into a Javanese regents family. In the early 1820s Baron van der Capellen, Resident of Preanger, took him under his care and appointed him clerk at the Resident's Office.
It was here that the Belgian painter Antoine Payen discovered him. Antoine Payen had been appointed 'Royal Painter' in the Netherlands Indies. King William I had commissioned him to make landscape paintings and paintings of people so that the king would get an impression of his overseas territories. Paintings took the place of photos in these days.
Payen was impressed by Raden Salèh's drawing talent . In 1823 Raden Salèh accompanied Payen on his journeys in Java and during these travels he had his first drawing lessons.
At Payen's intercession Salèh left for the Netherlands in 1829 to study art. King William I realised his potential and awarded him an annual allowance of two thousand guilders paid by the Ministry of Overseas Colonies. He began studying under Cornelis Kruseman, history and portrait painter, and Andries Schelfhout, landscape painter.
Salèh soon felt at home in The Hague, he befriended several artists and became a member of the Freemasons. His patrons wanted him to finish his studies fairly quickly so that he could return home, and would no longer be dependent on Dutch financial support.
However, things turned out differently.
Salèh started behaving more and more independently. He was widely known for his portraits, landscape and seascape paintings. He now also started painting wild animals such as buffaloes, lions , tigers and painted them in their natural habitat. Hunting scenes was his next genre. He depicted them as a struggle between men, animal and nature, following the romantic interpretations of these days in Europe.
Salèh could paint these animals only if he knew their anatomy, that is why he often visited P.H. Martin's menagerie. He also closely studied and copied paintings by 17th century Dutch masters: Anthonie van Dijck, Gerard Dou, Paulus Potter and Rembrandt. These painters were masters in painting animals. Their paintings can still be seen in The Hague in the museum 'Het Mauritshuis'.
After having been financially supported by the Dutch Government for 10 years, Salèh went on a journey through Belgium, France, Italy and Germany. He had soon learned to speak German and French, which opened doors for him. He became a respected man in political, cultural and intellectual higherircles. Not only was he invited as a celebrated artist but also as an exotic foreigner. He took advantage of this and pretended to be a 'Javanese prince'. He was a popular guest at European Royal Courts and spent quite some time with Duke Earnest II of Saksen-Coburg-Gotha in his Dresden palace.
From 1845 to 1851 Salèh lived in Paris where he met the history and animal painter, Horace Vemet. It is very likely that Salèh helped him with a large compostion of an animal painting. In 1847/1848 Vemet and Salèh went on a study tour to Algeria. Here he found inspiration for his imposing paintings: fights between North-African hunters and lions.
These European years produced his celebrated paintings: Deer Hunt (1846), The Capture of Prince Diponegoro (1857). It was returned by the Dutch to Indonesia in 1978. It is now in the Presidential Palace Museum in Jakarta. Salèh ridiculed the Dutch arrogance by giving the Dutchmen big heads, this in contrast to the well-balanced figures of the Indonesians. Salèh was inspired by works of Sir Edwin Landseer and possibly Eugène Delacroix. King William II and King Willem III commissioned Salèh for these works. But other European Royal Houses also commisioned him.
In 1849 Salèh indicated that he wanted to return to Java. And in 1951 his wish was granted. He was now 'Royal Painter', which entitled him to an annual allowance of 400 guilders per annum. He was also commissioned to restore the portraits of the governor-general, which he accepted reluctantly. It is believed that Salèh thought this work beneath him. In 1856, at his own request, he became curator of the Governor-General Gallery. During these years he painted Javanese landscapes and portraits of highly placed persons in the Dutch-Indies society.
He married the well-to-do, Miss Winkelman, a eurasian. Her financial position enabled him to have a house built in Bogor. A house on the banks of the river Tjiliwung in neo-gothic style.
Salèh had always been loyal to the Dutch-Indian Government. Once he came into conflict with the government. In April 1869 there were riots in the Bekasi region, east of Batavia. Salèh was accused of having been the leader. Later it appeared that one of leaders had posed as Salèh, the famous painter.
In 1875 he informed the Government that he would leave again for Europe. This time accompanied by his second wife Raden Aju Danoediredjoe. The purpose of the journey was to refresh 'mind and brush', and renew his friendships with old contact at the Coburg Court and in Paris. The expenses of this trip were so high that he was left almost ruined, as he said himself. However, the Government was not willing to recompense all costs.
Salèh died in Bogor in 1880.
Raden Salèh was a proud Javanese man, loyal to the Dutch. He was a talented artist, who made exotic, controversial works of art, which were greatly appreciated by prominent European patrons.