The History of Mughal Painting
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Unfolding the History of Mughal Painting: Merging Traditions and Imperial Taste

 

 

Demonios

Demons in a rugged landscape. India, ca. 1600s. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. 21.4 x 12.5 cm. © The San Diego Museum of Art.
  Imperial Mughal painting represents one of the most celebrated art forms of India.  It arose with remarkable rapidity in the mid-sixteenth century as a blending of three distinct traditions:  1)  court painting of Safavid Iran, 2) indigenous Indian devotional manuscript illumination, and 3) Indo-Persian or Sultanate painting, which is itself a hybrid of provincial Persian and local Indian styles.  Examples of these sources are featured in the previous two sections of the gallery, while the fourth section is devoted to paintings of the early imperial Mughal atelier as it developed into maturity from 1556 to 1650.  The result of this merging—paintings of unprecedented vitality, brilliant coloration, and impossibly precise detail—is something dramatically more than the sum of its parts.

The convergence of three distinct painting traditions into a unified harmonious style occurred as a result of bizarre twists of historical fate.  When the second Mughal emperor, Humayun (1507¬–1556), was abruptly deposed by an Afghan rebel, he sought political asylum at the court of the Shah of Iran.  The Shah, who had just undergone a conversion to a strict form of Islam, lost interest in figural painting and dismissed the painters of his renowned atelier.  Humayun, a lover of the arts, took advantage of the situation and hired some of the Shah’s recently unemployed painters, most notably Mir Sayyid Ali, and returned with them to India.  Not six months after he successfully regained his throne in Delhi, Humayun fell down the stairs of his library and died.  

His son Akbar, who would become one of the greatest monarchs ever to rule India, suddenly found himself emperor at the age of fourteen.  He loved lavishly illustrated tales of action, adventure, and intrigue, and he recruited about a hundred local Indian artists to join the imperial atelier under the direction of the seven court painters from Iran.  The joint productions of the Indian and Iranian artists, shaped by Akbar’s own penchant for realism, are remarkable works in a new distinctive style, full of unprecedented vitality.

The young emperor Akbar expanded his atelier to include local Indian painters, many of whom belonged to families who had been trained in manuscript illumination for generations. Their patrons would primarily have been pious Jains, Buddhists, or Hindus who commissioned copies of sacred texts for the sake of generating religious merit. The bold colors—especially the primary red background—and flat, stylized forms with wiry contour lines and abstract shapes characterize these pre-Akbari Indian paintings and combine to impart a sense of otherworldly energy and devotional fervor. This gallery presents a complete view of the history of Mughal painting—from what is likely the atelier’s first production under Akbar through to the final genealogical productions of the Empire in its dying days of the nineteenth century.

 

     
     

Ascención

The Ascension ofJesus in theGuise of a Priest. India, ca. From 1602 to 1605. Opaque watercolor on paper. 16.5 x 8 cm. © The San Diego Museum of Art.
 

 

Designs on Each Other: Indian Paintings and European Prints

India has been openly receiving and adapting images and ideas from the West for millennia, and the Mughal period was no exception. Artists and patrons in India would select scenes and motifs from European sources and transform them for their own use. At the Mughal court, especially during the reigns of emperors Akbar (reigned 1556–1605), Jahangir (reigned 1605–28), and Muhammad Shah (reigned 1719–48), European engravings brought to India by Jesuit missionaries inspired Indian artists to produce a large number of paintings of Christian and other European subjects. Far from serving as the tools for conversion to Christianity that the missionaries had hoped, the Mughal artists recast them into mystical interpretations of passages from Muslim literature on the life of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the Old Testament prophets. In other instances, the Indian paintings were more occidentalizing, as Mughal patrons took a keen interest in what appeared to them as exotic European people and objects with which they came into contact.
    
Conversely, Mughal paintings made their way to Europe, and by the early 18th century they served as sources for printmakers who produced illustrations for books about India. For European printmakers, especially those in France and the Netherlands, these works of art from India were sources that provided a sense of authenticity to their orientalizing works. The printmakers selectively adopted images of emperors and warriors from Indian paintings that created, perpetuated, and disseminated stereotypes or expected images of faraway India. This section explores the ways that Indian painters and European printmakers from the 16th to 19th centuries looked at and adapted one another’s works for their own purposes.

 

   
     

Bahadur Shah II
Bahadur Shah II in Darbar. India, ca. 1837. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. 20.1 x 14 cm.
© The San Diego Museum of Art

 
 

The Family Line: Imperial Genealogical Painting

In 1739, the Mughal court of Muhammad Shah was sacked by Nadir Shah, a Turkic leader from Iran. The imperial treasury was plundered. The royal library and the paintings it housed were destroyed or dispersed. With imperial resources depleted, the emperor could no longer maintain the large atelier of painters, many of whom left to find employment under increasingly independent tributary kingdoms and among the families of British East India Company personnel.

The painting that continued at the Mughal court was not on the grand scale of prior generations. It also took a decidedly nostalgic turn. Instead of illustrations of vibrant stories, religious texts, and scientific treatises, late Mughal emperors increasingly ordered illustrated genealogies of their imperial lineage. These books exalted the royal might, sophisticated culture, and lavish wealth of prior Mughal emperors and their courts in the face of diminishing influence. In a sense, these paintings were attempts to reclaim that past glory by linking a weaker later emperor, such as Bahadur Shah II, to his magnificent ancestors Akbar, Humayun, and Timur. At the same time, court scenes and royal portraits were also prevalent and served a similar function. Despite this artistic effort, throughout this period British power and influence grew in advance of the official establishment of colonial Raj control in 1858, bringing the Mughal Empire to an end.

 

 

 

 

 


Imperial Mughal painting represents one of the most celebrated art forms of India.  It arose with remarkable rapidity in the mid-sixteenth century as a blending of three distinct traditions:  1)  court painting of Safavid Iran, 2) indigenous Indian devotional manuscript illumination, and 3) Indo-Persian or Sultanate painting, which is itself a hybrid of provincial Persian and local Indian styles.  Examples of these sources are featured in the previous two sections of the gallery, while the fourth section is devoted to paintings of the early imperial Mughal atelier as it developed into maturity from 1556 to 1650.  The result of this merging—paintings of unprecedented vitality, brilliant coloration, and impossibly precise detail—is something dramatically more than the sum of its parts.

The convergence of three distinct painting traditions into a unified harmonious style occurred as a result of bizarre twists of historical fate.  When the second Mughal emperor, Humayun (1507¬–1556), was abruptly deposed by an Afghan rebel, he sought political asylum at the court of the Shah of Iran.  The Shah, who had just undergone a conversion to a strict form of Islam, lost interest in figural painting and dismissed the painters of his renowned atelier.  Humayun, a lover of the arts, took advantage of the situation and hired some of the Shah’s recently unemployed painters, most notably Mir Sayyid Ali, and returned with them to India.  Not six months after he successfully regained his throne in Delhi, Humayun fell down the stairs of his library and died.  

His son Akbar, who would become one of the greatest monarchs ever to rule India, suddenly found himself emperor at the age of fourteen.  He loved lavishly illustrated tales of action, adventure, and intrigue, and he recruited about a hundred local Indian artists to join the imperial atelier under the direction of the seven court painters from Iran.  The joint productions of the Indian and Iranian artists, shaped by Akbar’s own penchant for realism, are remarkable works in a new distinctive style, full of unprecedented vitality.

The young emperor Akbar expanded his atelier to include local Indian painters, many of whom belonged to families who had been trained in manuscript illumination for generations. Their patrons would primarily have been pious Jains, Buddhists, or Hindus who commissioned copies of sacred texts for the sake of generating religious merit. The bold colors—especially the primary red background—and flat, stylized forms with wiry contour lines and abstract shapes characterize these pre-Akbari Indian paintings and combine to impart a sense of otherworldly energy and devotional fervor. This gallery presents a complete view of the history of Mughal painting—from what is likely the atelier’s first production under Akbar through to the final genealogical productions of the Empire in its dying days of the nineteenth century.


Designs on Each Other: Indian Paintings and European Prints

India has been openly receiving and adapting images and ideas from the West for millennia, and the Mughal period was no exception. Artists and patrons in India would select scenes and motifs from European sources and transform them for their own use. At the Mughal court, especially during the reigns of emperors Akbar (reigned 1556–1605), Jahangir (reigned 1605–28), and Muhammad Shah (reigned 1719–48), European engravings brought to India by Jesuit missionaries inspired Indian artists to produce a large number of paintings of Christian and other European subjects. Far from serving as the tools for conversion to Christianity that the missionaries had hoped, the Mughal artists recast them into mystical interpretations of passages from Muslim literature on the life of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the Old Testament prophets. In other instances, the Indian paintings were more occidentalizing, as Mughal patrons took a keen interest in what appeared to them as exotic European people and objects with which they came into contact.
    
Conversely, Mughal paintings made their way to Europe, and by the early 18th century they served as sources for printmakers who produced illustrations for books about India. For European printmakers, especially those in France and the Netherlands, these works of art from India were sources that provided a sense of authenticity to their orientalizing works. The printmakers selectively adopted images of emperors and warriors from Indian paintings that created, perpetuated, and disseminated stereotypes or expected images of faraway India. This section explores the ways that Indian painters and European printmakers from the 16th to 19th centuries looked at and adapted one another’s works for their own purposes.


The Family Line: Imperial Genealogical Painting

In 1739, the Mughal court of Muhammad Shah was sacked by Nadir Shah, a Turkic leader from Iran. The imperial treasury was plundered. The royal library and the paintings it housed were destroyed or dispersed. With imperial resources depleted, the emperor could no longer maintain the large atelier of painters, many of whom left to find employment under increasingly independent tributary kingdoms and among the families of British East India Company personnel.

The painting that continued at the Mughal court was not on the grand scale of prior generations. It also took a decidedly nostalgic turn. Instead of illustrations of vibrant stories, religious texts, and scientific treatises, late Mughal emperors increasingly ordered illustrated genealogies of their imperial lineage. These books exalted the royal might, sophisticated culture, and lavish wealth of prior Mughal emperors and their courts in the face of diminishing influence. In a sense, these paintings were attempts to reclaim that past glory by linking a weaker later emperor, such as Bahadur Shah II, to his magnificent ancestors Akbar, Humayun, and Timur. At the same time, court scenes and royal portraits were also prevalent and served a similar function. Despite this artistic effort, throughout this period British power and influence grew in advance of the official establishment of colonial Raj control in 1858, bringing the Mughal Empire to an end.
 

Last Updated on Friday, 14 June 2013 22:23

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