Mughal Court Artists, 1546-1627

Jahangir and Shah Abbas

A review of The Emperor’s Eye and the Painter’s Brush: The Rise of the Mughal Court Artist, c. 1546-1627, by Yael Rice.

Mughal court paintings are among the best-studied art objects of Islamic and South Asian art history.  In her ambitious and original dissertation, Yael Rice seeks to revise our understanding of these paintings by taking an artist-focused approach to their interpretation, de-centering the role of imperial patrons and countering the notion that Mughal cultural production was primarily the result of imperial desires, psychologies, and tastes. She casts the court artist at once as a devoted servant of the emperor, as an innovative interpreter of imperial dreams and visions, and as a shrewd courtier seeking to elevate his status in the imperial administration. Rice does not remove the Mughal emperor from her interpretation, but rather avoids what she terms a “top-down, emperor-centered approach” (p. 3). She considers painter and patron as equally subject to the intellectual and philosophical currents of the time, and painters as uniquely positioned to “shape imperial tastes for and attitudes towards image-making” (p. 6).

Rice focuses on paintings from the period of circa 1546-1627, a period defined “in some part by imperial reign but more so by the materials themselves” (p. 1). Rather than undertake a strictly chronological study, Rice organizes the dissertation thematically and succeeds in avoiding the type of teleological framework that, she argues, often obscures the complex negotiations involved in Mughal image production (pp. 1, 25, 218). In three chapters of substantial length, Rice investigates artistic production in relationship to concepts of portraiture, oneirocriticism, and gift exchange as they operated in the Mughal context. Basing her analyses on close readings of Mughal paintings and the inscriptions they often bear, Rice also draws on Mughal histories and on theories of optics and visuality that circulated at the Mughal court.

In Chapter 1, Rice explores the nature and status of portraiture in Mughal India. In the first part of the chapter, she focuses her interpretation on paintings, poetry, and prose from the now-dispersed Salim Album, following it with an examination of painted colophons from 1581-1610 that feature portraits of artists who were active in the imperial ateliers of Akbar and Jahangir. In discussing Mughal portraiture, Rice emphasizes the importance accorded by the emperors to the science of physiognomy (‘ilm al-firasa). Physiognomic study could provide the emperor with the means to determine a subject’s moral character and hence fairly and effectively dispense justice. Whereas physiognomic study and description had previously been restricted to the verbal and textual realms, Rice argues that Mughal painters augmented this tradition by developing a highly mimetic portraiture practice. Just as crucial as the production of these portraits was their viewing, an exercise that allowed the emperor to display his visual acuity, a point that Rice especially explores in relation to Jahangir’s oft-cited reputation as a painting “connoisseur.” Here Rice makes the point that by facilitating this experience and by celebrating the emperor’s eye and keen vision with the production of mimetic portraits, court painters demonstrated their loyalty and devotion to the emperor. As she states, “the impetus for a more mimetic representational painting medium lies not with the emperors or the artists alone; rather it arose out of a synergistic relationship between patron and court servant” (p. 92).

Throughout the chapter, Rice interrogates and unpacks the very nature of the portrait. For example, she includes a careful study of the inscriptions on paintings of individuals, comparing the relationships between poetic inscriptions and what she terms “semantically ‘open’ images” with prose inscriptions and paintings that, she argues, can more firmly be considered portraits (p. 41).  Rice argues that prose inscriptions, especially when written in the imperial hand, played a key role in authenticating portraits and by extension, in serving to classify portraits as such. In addition, when she turns her attention to portraits of painters included in colophons, Rice emphasizes the potential of these portraits to operate indexically, expanding on the earlier discussion of physiognomy and mimetic portraiture. She demonstrates that these images “served as a trace of one’s corporeal presence and moral character, much like the athar (trace) left by the calligrapher’s brush” (p. 91). This point is also related to one of her broader contentions, that the period under discussion witnessed the rise in the status of the court painter, his work eventually as esteemed as that of much-valued court calligraphers. Throughout her discussion of the sophisticated way in which portraiture functioned at the Mughal court in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, she draws not only on the inscriptions and paintings from her chosen albums and manuscripts, but also as well as related passages from key sources including the Jahangirnama, Akbarnama, and A’in-i Akbari and a longer tradition of “verbal portraiture” in texts describing the Prophet Muhammad and other luminaries from Islamic history.

In Chapter 2, Rice concentrates on a body of images referred to as the allegorical paintings of Jahangir, produced for the emperor between 1615 and 1625, and long understood as expressions of imperial anxieties and ambitions concerning political authority. Rice first addresses the concept of allegory and its applicability in the Mughal context, arguing that the interpretive framework of the European allegory is less compelling, in this case, than an oneiric framework. Rice explores the rich roots of Islamic oneirocriticism, in which God is the fabricator of dreams, mining the written sources in order to demonstrate the importance of dream visions and visuality for the Mughals and once again revealing the complex interaction between image-making and other, text-based discourses at the Mughal court. In her analysis, the allegorical paintings function less as symbolic representations of imperial psychology, and instead operate as visualizations of divine authorship.  In this scenario, God is the author of a dream, the emperor experiences the dream vision, and the painter transcribes, records, or translates the dream. She carefully contrasts this process with European allegorical images, in which the artist is “conceived as an inventor of allegories” (p. 114). Here, the inventiveness of the artist lies in his ability to channel the inner vision of the emperor and emphasize, through pictorial depiction, the divine nature of this vision. Viewed in this light, a famed painting of Jahangir embracing his political enemy Shah Abbas does much more than express the political concerns of the emperor. Instead, it “transform(s) Jahangir’s personal concerns into a trans-personal, heaven-sent declaration” (p. 115).

Having analyzed the role of the artist in developing sophisticated systems of portraiture and in transcribing oneiric and divine visions, Rice moves on in Chapter 3 to address presentation paintings that were specifically created in conjunction with Nawruz, or Persian new year, celebrations. Rice explains that Nawruz was the prime moment for the ceremonial exchange of gifts between Mughal emperors and their subjects, particularly after 1584 when the Mughal regnal calendar was adjusted so that Nawruz coincided with the julus (anniversary of imperial accession) (p. 193). She explores the broad strata of imperial subjects who participated in the gift economy of Nawruz, from high-ranking nobles who held celebrations in honor of the emperor to court poets and musicians who created and performed compositions specifically for the event, all with the ultimate goal of receiving favor from the emperor, either in the form of public recognition or material gifts.

Rice contends that the Mughal painter was once again nicely positioned to harness the potential of the Nawruz gift ceremonial, for he could both present a gift in the form of a presentation painting, but also re-enact and re-inscribe various moments of gift-giving, not to mention the gifts themselves, through pictorial depiction. Nawruz then came to serve as yet another opportunity for court painters to perform their devotion as imperial servants, this time in a way that was on par with the activities of courtiers and that could result in direct rewards in the form of recognition and advancement. Rice even explores the extent to which such gift-giving was the prerogative of the highest-ranking members of the imperial atelier, since two works that are clearly associated with Nawruz (Jahangir’s Dream, Figure 2.2, and Jahangir with an Orb, Figure 3.19), were both painted by the esteemed Abu’l Hasan, who had been deemed by the emperor as the “Rarity of the Age.”

Overall, Rice offers a compelling alternative approach to the study of Mughal court painting. She casts artists not simply as passive recipients of imperial directives for image-making, but as active agents who responded to and in part constituted the social, political, and intellectual currents of Mughal court culture at this time. This approach differs from earlier studies, which have focused more on artistic style, biography, or patronage. She also addresses broader art historical questions relevant to the field at large, including the nature of the portrait, the relationship between text and image, the place of the court artist in larger court structures, the relevance of public ceremonial, theories of depiction, and the manner in which Mughal artists mined multiple visual traditions, from Persian painting to Flemish engravings, into their practice. Moreover, she contributes to an ongoing conversation about comparative approaches to the study of the visual cultures of early modern India and Europe, at times relating her interpretations to relevant studies of Renaissance Italy, for instance. Besides appealing to art historians from various subfields, her work will also be of interest to scholars from other disciplines. She effectively integrates historical, poetic, and theoretical sources into her work, while always emphasizing the centrality of images in the processes she explores, and the unique potential of the court painter to fashion, rather than merely reflect, imperial taste.

Chanchal Dadlani
Department of Art
Wake Forest University
dadlani@wfu.edu

Primary Sources

Mughal court painting from c. 1546-1627 (from numerous museum and archival collections in North America, Europe, and India)
Persian inscriptions on Mughal paintings
Mughal imperial chronicles, especially the Jahangirnama and the Akbarnama
Islamic philosophy, including Shihab al-Din Suhrawardi, Hikmat al-ishraq (The Philosophy of Illumination)

Dissertation Information 

University of Pennsylvania. 2011. 246 pp. Primary Advisor: Renata Holod.

Image: Abu’l Hasan, Jahangir Embracing Shah ‘Abbas (detail), c. 1618, opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper, Freer Gallery of Art F1945.9 (photograph by author)

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