Spotlight Art

Rembrandt’s Mughal era

A Mughal nobleman on horseback; Rembrandt, 1656-1661.

A Mughal nobleman on horseback; Rembrandt, 1656-1661.   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons


A new book traces the fascinating miniatures the Dutch master indulged in during his last years

Now ingenious Gujarati shows/ So beauteously on the page/ His painting more wondrously noble/ Than an artist’s brush ever made:/ And with this he mocks Europe/ Knocking from its head art’s crown

That was 17th century Dutch artist Willem Schellinks seemingly blown away by the magnificence of Mughal art. Rich praise indeed, for this was the golden era of Dutch art itself, a time when the Netherlands, freed of Spain and the grip of the church, was a flourishing hub of secular creativity.

But Schellinks was not the only artist to find the creative skills of the Mughal inspirational. It is a little-known fact but Rembrandt van Rijn, considered the greatest artist of the period, made 23 drawings on delicate and expensive Asian paper that copied Mughal miniatures in the late 1650s. This is an intriguing collection because it is a world apart from Rembrandt’s usual artistic engagements and style. It neither influences nor is influenced by his other works, and stands out for its detailing and richness. How did he and the other artists discover these works? How did 16th century Amsterdam with its profusion of collectors and traders receive these artworks? Why did Rembrandt put out this body of work? Did he know anything about the men and women he painted?

The answers to some of these questions lie at a fascinating point where art, politics, trade, culture and global diplomacy of the 16th century intersect. And they are to be found in Rembrandt and the Inspiration of India, a recently launched book published by Marg in collaboration with the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

One of these Rembrandt Mughal imitations is at Getty Museum, the rest are scattered around the Louvre, British Museum and so on. The Getty piece shows an ageing Shah Jahan with a halo around him, facing his son Dara Shikoh holding a falcon in his right hand. The drawing was displayed at the recently concluded exhibition, India and the World, A History in Nine Stories. Another of Rembrandt’s ‘Mughal’ works will be showing in Delhi April onwards.

Shah Jahan and Dara Shikoh; Rembrandt, 1654-1656.

Shah Jahan and Dara Shikoh; Rembrandt, 1654-1656.   | Photo Credit: The J. Paul Getty Museum

The reason few of us know about these delicate Rembrandt drawings on India’s courts and courtiers is because they are safeguarded in boxes, and can be shown for no more than 60 days in a year. There is also little discussion around them in art circles.

As editor Stephanie Schrader discusses in her introduction, in the Getty Museum box of Rembrandt’s drawings, his Mughal copy is in stark contrast to his usual preoccupation with “atmospheric Dutch countryside, biblical scenes infused with poignant psychological drama, expressive head studies.” Here, there are emperors, princes and courtiers in Mughal regalia — long angarkhas and chogas, tight pajamas ruched at the bottom, magnificent turbans, jewellery, sashes, swords, the whole works.

In the 17th century, Holland was opening out to the east and the Dutch East India Company was established in 1602. Along with other Asian exotica, chances are that art from India too was finding its way into its ports. Mughal works on paper were called ‘Mogolse’ or ‘Oostindise’, or more interestingly, ‘Suratse tekeningen’ (Surat drawings, given the critical place the port enjoyed in world trade at that time).

Today, it might seem strange that a genius like Rembrandt chose to do copies, and that too in the last decades of his creative life; he died in 1669. This, after all, is the man who had painted The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, The Night Watch and The Jewish Bride. “He was evolving as an artist all the time and he saw himself as a pupil at this point in his life. He had led a grand life but all had been taken from him, his house and collections,” says Schrader. By 1656, Rembrandt had been declared bankrupt, the remaining years of his life to be spent in poverty and disgrace.

Amsterdam of the 17th century was positioning itself as a global, cosmopolitan city that absorbed all kinds of foreign cultures. These paintings made Rembrandt, what Schrader calls, a “pioneer of cross-cultural exchanges,” a sophisticated and erudite connoisseur and artist. He was in possession of Asian exotica purchased in Amsterdam’s markets and it is highly likely this included Mughal miniatures.

Emperor Akbar and his son Selim in Apotheosis; Rembrandt, 1656.

Emperor Akbar and his son Selim in Apotheosis; Rembrandt, 1656.   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Rembrandt took pride in the fact that he didn’t need to travel the world for inspiration, the world came to him. “His clientele consisted of merchants whose wealth was inextricably linked to global trade and finance. It is conceivable that one of these men owned Mughal paintings that the artist copied,” says the author. It is an interesting thought that this Rembrandt series is so completely a product of the trade, politics, culture and economy of the times.

Consider this — if Dutch merchants had not launched their ambitious “look east” venture, if Mughal politics had not accepted their overtures, if Emperor Jahangir had not been a keen participant in the cultural exchanges, and if Amsterdam’s elite weren’t dying to see themselves as patrons of great art, these drawings wouldn’t have materialised.

Rembrandt’s effort in copying the Mughal miniatures was to bring exactitude to his work. He deviated only marginally from the format, not bothering with adding much creativity to the work. “He obviously studied the originals from top to bottom, every detail with fascination. His drawings were sumptuous, colourful, and grand, unlike his undefined, loosely drawn originals,” says Stephanie.

B.N. Goswamy, the scholar of miniature paintings, says Mughal miniatures held a special attraction for Rembrandt. “Remember he was a draughtsman and these drawings were a product of his curiosity as a draughtsman. He enjoyed the details in the miniatures he reproduced — the patka, how it varied between emperors and regions, the beard, the clothes, the jewellery,” says Goswamy. Goswamy’s own favourite among these drawings is a fascinating and moody drawing of four mullahs seated under a tree, an homage to Mughal artistry. This is among the few drawings that don’t represent royalty.

The author writes on and lives for music, dance, theatre, and literature.

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2020 8:43:55 AM |

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