Review: ‘The Indian Portrait: 1580 – 1860’ At The National Portrait Gallery • 11 March ∼ 20 June 2010

This is an absolute little gem of an exhibition, on at the National Portrait Gallery, and what’s more, it is free. It covers the development of portraiture as a genre in India from the court of the Mughals until the British Raj, a period which saw a change in the concept  of a  portrait from an image that depicted the subject  in a idealized and symbolic manner, to an attempt to portray their character and emotions in an empathetic way.

Kunwar Anop Singh of Devgarh riding with a falcon

Kunwar Anop Singh of Devgarh riding with a falcon, c. 1776 Attributed to Bakhta, © Museum Rietberg Zurich. Gift of Dr. Carlo Fleischmann Foundation and acquisition. Photo: Wettstein & Kauf

Undoubtedly influenced by Western portrait painters’ ideas of ‘realism’,  they also reflect a rich historical tradition embracing local Muslim and Hindu traditions and influences from Iran.  Whilst retaining above all a decorative beauty, they give a fascinating insight into aspects of Indian life from Maharajas to floor sweepers. It’s a small exhibition and most of the images are small, but they are so full of detail each one affords a very long viewing.

Portrait of Sultan Ali Adil Shah II

Part of Portrait of Sultan Ali Adil Shah II, c.1660, Unknown artist © The Barber Institute of Fine Arts

A typical Mughul portrait with flat decorative textures, intricate borders and formal, profile pose. As the exhibition illustrates however, introduced to prints of Western paintings Indian painters began to experiment with chiaroscuro (shading) and the use of pictorial landscape settings , as in  Uday Ram’s Sahib Jan c.1808 (below right)

Like the portrait of the wealthy Rajastani merchant Seth Manekchand  (below, left) the picture is very large by Indian standards, reflecting the European notion that the size of the painting should reflect the importance of the sitter. Manekchand’s portrait is a real example of the mixing of traditions. The huge size (it’s a very large portrait by Indian standards) and pose are typically European, whilst the the profile view, flat skin colour and formal pose are very much still Mughal and similar to Sultan Ali, above.

Seth Manekchand, Sahib Jan

Left: Seth Manekchand, 1823, Unknown artist, © Collection of Claudio Moscatelli
Right: Sahib Jan, 1809, Unknown artist, © Collection of Claudio Moscatelli

The notion of ‘verisimilitude’ may now be central to our understanding of a portrait  but  under the Mughals this idea was secondary to the overt display of the wealth and power of the subject – indicated by an intricate depiction of their jewels and finery or even their actual physical size. In Raja Bhupat Pal of Basohli smoking a Hookah, c. 1685, the Maharajah is depicted literally twice the size of his servant to distinguish between the social status of the two.

In this respect many of the paintings reminded me very much of the jewel-like Elizabethan portraits of the 16th century, with their tendency to allegory and symbolism and rich textural detail.  Despite the developments towards greater ‘realism’, most of the Indian portraits retain a similar purely decorative beauty in the backgrounds or intricate borders filled with twining plants and insects which seem alive with activity.

Shah Jahan as Prince Khurram

 Prince Khurram /Shah Jahan, ca. 1616, Unknown artist, © Victoria and Albert Museum

These artists were incredibly skillful – not only are they immensely elegant, as in this delicate portrait of Shah Jahan as Prince Khurram by an unknown artist, but despite the formality of the poses and the profile views they are lively and dazzling to the eye, the depiction of fabrics rich and detailed and the borders teeming with tiny plants and miniature buzzing insects.

It’s the more traditional Moghul portraits the appeal most to our modern eyes with their rich flat coloured backgrounds and abstract elements of design. This rich style of portraiture that didn’t return to the West until the post-Impressionists – much influenced by Eastern artists – who used stylized flat colour to suggest emotion. See Paul Gauguin’s Self Portrait: Les Miserables of 1888 with its rich colour and decorative background.

Self Portrait: Les Miserables

Self Portrait (Les Miserables) 1888 © Paul Gaugin Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

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