A Forgotten Connection: Rembrandt and the Art of Mughal India

How Two Great Artistic Communities Bridged Religion, Culture, and Geography

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (Dutch, 1606 - 1669) Shah Jahan and Dara Shikoh, about 1656–1661, Brown ink and gray wash with scratchwork. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Rembrandt and India

Jahangir (detail), about 1630-35, Muhammad Mushin, opaque watercolor and gold on paper, Private collection

Few artistic traditions seem as distinct, at first glance, as those of the 17th century Netherlandish artists, and their counterparts in far-away Mughal India. Yet an exhibit at the Getty Museum reveals an unexpected history of interaction between the artists’ studios of Northern Europe and the ateliers of the Mughal princes.

Trade between the courts of Mughal India and the Netherlands from the late 16th through the 17th century facilitated a fertile exchange of artistic ideas between the two countries. This artistic interchange was deliberately fostered by Shah Jahangir of India (1569-1627), who took pride in the cosmopolitanism of his court and of the artists who served him. His successor, Shah Jahan (1592-1666), likewise purchased European art, and encouraged European artists to come to work in India.

At the same time, merchants of the Dutch East Indian Company sold classical Indian art to the Dutch middle and upper classes, as well as to interested Dutch artists. One of the Netherlands’ most famous painters of this period, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669), was among those artists who looked to India for novel images and styles. The impact of Mughal art on his work is the subject of a new exhibit at the Getty Museum: Rembrandt and the Inspiration of India. The exhibition also explores the artworks produced at the other end of the trade route, by Mughal artists strongly influenced by European styles and motifs.

A Mutually Fruitful Exchange

Jahangir had a “taste for European paintings” and was a strong patron of the arts. He collected and displayed European art, employed Dutch artists, and “encouraged a synthesis of artistic styles,” as the Getty exhibit explains. The resulting works might blend Indian, Persian and European elements into the same piece.

Jujhar Singh Bundela Kneels in Submission to Shah Jahan (folio from Minto Album; detail), 1630-40, Bichitr, opaque watercolor and gold on paper, Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library. Image © Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, CBL In 07A.16

One painting featured in the exhibition, Jujhar Singh Bundela Kneels in Submission to Shah Jahan by Bichitr, demonstrates the degree to which classically-trained Indian artists incorporated the imagery of Western European paintings into their works. The image of the angels carrying a crown above Shah Jahan’s head is considered to be a direct appropriation of Christian iconography.

Another painting from the exhibition, Jahangir, likewise features two angels flying above the head of the emperor, a similar iconographic element to the Jujhar Singh Bundela Kneels painting. The artist, Muhammad Mushin, achieved a fuller synthesis of Indian and Dutch iconography by placing an arrow and sword, distinctly Mughal symbols of power, in the hands of the thoroughly European angels. These experiments with Christian iconography are the delightful outcome of a flourishing art trade in a society open to learning about foreign styles, while maintaining its own traditional artistic language.

Rembrandt’s Indian Sources

Not all Indian paintings were produced for the Mughal court. In the 16th and 17th centuries, many thousands of Indian paintings were made for export, with the Netherlands serving as one of the main markets for Mughal art. One mayor of Amsterdam, Nicolaes Witsen, owned over 400 paintings from India.

Although Rembrandt never traveled to India – in fact, never left his own country – this trade between the Netherlands and India granted him access to the art of the Mughal courts. Because of the high volume of Indian artworks entering the Netherlands at the time, and because of the tendency towards compositional and stylistic similarity between various Indian works, it is sometimes difficult to know exactly which artworks Rembrandt worked from while producing his sketches from Indian originals.

From Mughal Paintbrushes to Rembrandt’s Pen

A Deccani Nobleman Standing (Muhammad ‘Adil Shah of Bijapur), about 1656-61, Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn. The British Museum, London. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The Getty Museum’s exhibit Rembrandt and the Inspiration of India includes nearly all of Rembrandt’s two-dozen drawings in this genre – paired with examples of Indian paintings similar to the ones that inspired his work. This exhibit marks the first time in over 250 years that these images have been shown together.

Comparing the paintings of the Indian artists with Rembrandt’s, it is readily apparent how Rembrandt incorporated the Mughal attention to detail, and the relationship between the figures, with his own play with shadow and perspective. Notably absent in Rembrandt’s drawings are the background angels and other elements of Western iconography that are a feature of the Indian artworks. Rembrandt’s interest was in what he could learn that was new and strange from the works of Mughal artists, not in the echoes of his own artistic tradition that appeared in the Indian work.

Rembrandt was known for his portraiture, so perhaps it is not surprising that he favored portraits of Mughal rulers and courtiers when copying or sketching Indian works. Many of Rembrandt’s sketches from Mughal portraits were drawn on Asian paper, a decision which reveals, perhaps, an interest not just in the imagery of Mughal art but in its techniques and materials as well.

Comparing Hashim’s Oval Portrait of Shah Jahan with Rembrandt’s drawing Shah Jahan and His Son demonstrates the difference between the Mughal artist’s use of color and Rembrandt’s mastery of the line to invoke the image of Shah Jahan. Rembrandt maintained the classical Indian portrait form but contributed his own tradition’s techniques to give the image a new depth and movement.

In Rembrandt’s other work, particularly in his lithographs depicting the life of Christ, there are suggestions of influence from his Mughal studies. The poses, faces, and fine clothing of the men populating Rembrandt’s scenes of ancient Jerusalem recall his sketches from the courtly portraits of Mughal India.

A Unique Body of Work

British collector and artist Jonathan Richardson Sr. assembled a collection of Rembrandt’s Mughal drawings sometime during the late 17th and early 18th century. They remained together until Richardson’s son, Jonathan Richardson the younger, consigned them to sale by auction in 1747.

Today, both the original Indian paintings in Dutch collections and Rembrandt’s sketches from them speak of a time when the world was wider, more full of surprises. Although the route from the Netherlands and India was long, dangerous, and uncertain, great works of art and many artists made the long journey between the two nations, in search of inspiration and a new audience for their work.

The exhibit Rembrandt and the Inspiration of India runs from March 13th to June 24th at the Getty Center. A catalog of the same name, edited by the Getty’s curator of drawings, Stephanie Schrader, is now available, recording the hitherto-neglected story of how two great artistic communities bridged a religious, cultural, and geographic divide to produce novel works and unite elements from both their artistic traditions.

THE J. PAUL GETTY MUSEUM, REMBRANDT AND THE INSPIRATION OF INDIA, March 13–June 24, 2018 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center

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