How Mughal India inspired Rembrandt

Rembrandt, a well-known name in European art history, has an Indian connection that not many may know about. From 1656 to 1661, the Dutch artist quietly made 25 drawings based on Mughal miniatures from India. And now, the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, United States, is gearing up to showcase the 23 remaining works in an exhibition titled, ‘Rembrandt and the Inspiration of India’, which will be on view from March 13 to June 24. “Drawn on Asian paper and notable for their nuanced response to the Mughal models, these sheets mark a watershed moment when the Dutch master reacted to the art of a dramatically different culture,” says Stephanie Schrader, curator at the Department of Drawings, J. Paul Getty Museum. Dr. Schrader has also edited an illustrated volume titled Rembrandt and the Inspiration of India.

The 23 Mughal drawings depicting Mughal kings, princes and courtiers will be displayed alongside the Mughal miniatures. It was trade that facilitated an encounter between Rembrandt and Indian paintings. With the Dutch East India Company controlling trade in Asia, goods from various countries started to land in the Dutch market. That’s how art from different cultures and regions became accessible to the artist. Rembrandt started to buy the drawings and prints of these paintings in Amsterdam.

“Goods such as those Rembrandt owned were imported in large numbers into Amsterdam on Dutch East India Company ships that left the port of Surat, where the Dutch merchants had established a foothold in 1616. Surat was the natural crossroads of two overland trade routes to Agra and Delhi, cities favoured by Mughal emperors Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb. Rembrandt depicted all three emperors in his drawings,” adds Dr. Schrader, who has also delved in-depth into the subject in her book.

She says Rembrandt already had a basic knowledge about Mughal emperors from various writings but he was significantly exposed to this style of painting being done in India through their circulation outside of India. Samuel Purchas’s account of Roe’s Embassy (published in 1625) affirms the fact that Mughal paintings produced in royal ateliers reached foreign shores, too. Upon Rembrandt’s bankruptcy in 1656, an inventory was drawn up listing his diverse personal collection of art, artefacts, foreign weapons, globes, shells, plants and stuffed animals. An album of Mughal works on paper, which inspired the artist, is assumed to be part of the inventory.

She goes on to point out a baffling observation, “Despite the fact that Rembrandt’s Portrait of Aurangzeb has a seventeenth century Dutch inscription at the top edge of the sheet’s verso that reads, ‘one of a Mughal’, the term ‘Mughal’ does not appear in Rembrandt’s inventory. Just as one cannot be certain that Rembrandt owned the Mughal works he copied, one cannot always precisely identify which paintings or drawings served as his sources.”

Majestic style

Dr. Schrader also notes, “I believe Rembrandt focused his concentration upon artistically evoking the majestic style of Mughal portraiture. He punctiliously recorded tiny details of facial features. For example, a detail of Shah Jahan and Dara Shikoh reveals that he scratched out his first attempt to portray the shah’s nose and redrew the nose bridge. Another portrait, reveals Rembrandt made certain to convey Shah Jahan’s newly white beard after the death of his beloved wife in 1631. He also took note of the six-pointed, transparent chakdar jama (crossover tunic with slits at the skirt and asymmetrical hemline) of Jahangir’s brother, Prince Daniyal, that went out of fashion with the death of Akbar in 1605. He differentiated Deccani fabric patterns and turbans from those of the Mughals.”

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Printable version | Oct 13, 2021 8:58:45 PM |

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