Art/ Collection/ Art Object

"Shah Jahan on Horseback", Folio from the Shah Jahan Album

Painting by Payag (Indian, active ca. 1591–1658)
Mir 'Ali Haravi (d. ca. 1550)
Object Name:
Album leaf
verso: ca. 1630; recto: ca. 1530–50
Attributed to India
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper
H. 15 5/16 in. (38.9 cm)
W. 10 1/8 in. (25.7 cm)
Credit Line:
Purchase, Rogers Fund and The Kevorkian Foundation Gift, 1955
Accession Number:
Not on view
Payag worked for the emperors Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan over the course of a remarkably long, seven-decade career, and his brother Balchand was also a talented painter with whom he collaborated on a handful of paintings. The attribution of this portrait to Payag, written in the border below the painting by Shah Jahan, was recently confirmed by the discovery of a microscopic signature on the golden tip of the emperor’s bow.

Four Folios from the Emperor's Album (nos., .13, .21,.4r)

This celebrated imperial Mughal album (muraqqa‘), known as the Shah Jahan, or Emperors’, Album originally consisted of fifty leaves containing paintings, illuminated pages, and calligraphy. Thirty-nine of these date from the seventeenth century, while the remaining eleven date from the early nineteenth century. Of the earlier folios, the first few were commissioned by Emperor Jahangir (r. 1605–27), but it was under the patronage of his son Shah Jahan (r. 1627–58) that most of the leaves were added. The nineteenth-century folios contain copies of the earlier subjects as well as some new compositions. This album belongs to a family of related imperial albums that share similar formats and subject matter, most notably the so-called Wantage and Minto albums in British collections, particularly the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin.

Most of the calligraphic panels in the Shah Jahan Album were executed by the sixteenth-century Persian master Mir ‘Ali Haravi, who first practiced his art at Herat and later at Bukhara. His writing was so prized in Mughal India that it was collected, mounted in albums, and illuminated. Here (no., the illumination takes on a special character, departing from the more usual arabesque-based motifs seen in Indo-Persian ornament and moving toward a naturalism typical of Mughal painting.[1] The inclusion of natural life as part of the decoration of text pages is also seen in an earlier Mughal Gulistan of Sa‘di in the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, London, which contains over two thousand bird images.[2] In the Museum’s folio, six lines of Persian poetry written out by Mir ‘Ali in nasta‘liq script are set against a burnished gold ground that contains landscape features as well as various animals and birds, including a pair of sambar deer, nilgai antelope, white goats, mynah birds, robins, starlings, egrets, and shrikes. The lyrical poetry framing the composition is by the poet Hilali Chughata’i (two couplets are in Chagatai Turkish).

Recorded observations of the emperors Babur (r. 1526–30) and Jahangir reflect the Mughal interest in the natural world; indeed, modern science has recognized the latter as having made at least two original contributions to zoology.[3] Jahangir’s remarkably acute interests in the flora and fauna of India are expressed in the sensitive natural studies produced by his leading artist, Mansur, as demonstrated in this album by the nilgai, or blue bull (no., one of several such works therein.[4] This beast may have roamed in Jahangir’s zoological garden, where Mansur, a multifaceted artist who earlier in his career had been trained in the art of illumination, would have been able to record details such as the broken horn and the whorl of hair at the base of the animal’s neck (the slightly less detailed brushwork on the body of the beast, however, may indicate the hand of an assistant). While this natural study depicts a relatively humble subject, a local animal, other works by Mansur portray more exotic creatures, including a zebra (which arrived at court as a gift in 1616), a turkey-cock (arriving in 1612), and a chameleon.[5] Although Mansur was not the only artist who addressed such natural themes, he was an acknowledged master of the genre, gaining mention in Jahangir’s memoirs and earning the title Nadir al-‘Asr, Wonder of the Age.

Grand compositions such as no., which shows a bejeweled Shah Jahan with a radiating nimbus astride a magnificent pie-bald stallion, were part of the imperial Mughal image disseminated around the world.[6] The ruler’s firm black ink inscription names the artist as Payag, further confirmed by a recently discovered artist’s signature in a minuscule inscription located on the extension of the saddle.[7] In many ways the hard-edged formality of this composition epitomizes the Shah Jahan painting style, yet demonstrated equally is Payag’s facility with royal portraiture, a somewhat rare genre for him. This crystalline imperial likeness and the layering of patterns and shapes in the area of the saddlecloth stand in contrast to the artist’s use of smoky landscapes, dark tones, and washy colors in the Padshahnama (Royal Library, Windsor).[8] Of note is the subtle radiance around the point of the emperor’s spear. Also appearing in folios of that royal manuscript is the emperor’s same piebald steed.[9] This particular formula of Shah Jahan in equestrian mode proved to have lasting popularity, judging from the number of later copies made, including one in the Emperors’ Album itself.[10]

A shamsa (sun or sunburst in Arabic) traditionally opened or closed imperial Mughal albums. Worked in bright color, predominantly lapis, and several tones of gold, this meticulously designed and unerringly precise radiating medallion from the Shah Jahan Album ( is enriched by painted arabesques, fantastic flowers, cloud bands, birds, and insects. The Emperors’ Album contains two such masterpieces, this one centered around the name of Shah Jahan written in an elaborate tughra (cipher) style and its companion containing the seal imprint of his successor and later owner of the album, Aurangzeb (r. 1658–1707). Specifically trained masters of ornament painted such illuminations. Although many Iranian prototypes for this rosette can be cited, the Mughal shamsa differs from them in its heightened three-dimensionality and warm coloring.[11] The importance of solar symbolism in many aspects of Indian and Islamic visual representation and courtly life made such radiating motifs particularly meaningful to their royal patrons.[12]

Navina Haidar in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]


1. Welch 1987, pp. 124–25, no. 22.

2. The Art of the Book in India. Exhibition, British Library, Reference Division, London. Catalogue by Jeremiah P. Losty. London, 1982, p. 87, no. 58.

3. Alvi, M. A., and A. Rahman. Jahangir: The Naturalist. The National Institute of Sciences of India Monograph, 3. New Delhi, 1968, p. 5.

4. Published in Welch 1987, pp. 178–81, no. 47; Welch 1985, p. 216, no. 142; Welch 1987, p. 145, no. 111.

5. The Grand Mogul: Imperial Painting in India, 1600–1660. Exhibition, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass.; Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Asia House Gallery, New York. Catalogue by Milo Cleveland Beach, with Stuart Cary Welch and Glenn D. Lowry. Williamstown, Mass., 1978., pp. 137–43, provides a list of the artist’s major works; see also
Blunt, Wilfred. “The Mughal Painters of Natural History.” The Burlington Magazine 90, no. 539 (February 1948), pp. 48–50.

6. Published in Welch 1987, pp. 202–3, no. 59.

7. A recent examination of the painting by Robert Elgood resulted in this new discovery.

8. See “The Two Worlds of Payag—Further Evidence on a Mughal Artist.” In Indian Art and Connoisseurship: Essays in Honour of Douglas
Barrett, edited by John Guy, pp. 320–41. New Delhi, 1995. for a discussion of Payag’s style.

9. King of the World: The Padshahnama, an Imperial Mughal Manuscript from the Royal Library, Windsor Castle. Exhibition, National Museum of India, New Delhi, and other venues. Catalogue by Milo Cleveland Beach and Ebba Koch with Wheeler [M.] Thackston. London and Washington, D.C., 1997, p. 52, no. 17, pp. 72–75, no. 29.

10. Welch 1987, p. 257, no. 86.

11. Ibid., pp. 80–81, no. 1; p. 149, no. 114; Welch 1985, pp. 236–37, no. 156.

12. Skelton, Robert. “Imperial Symbolism in Mughal Painting.” In Content and Context of Visual Arts in the Islamic World: Papers from A Colloquium in Memory of Richard Ettinghausen, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, 2–4 April 1980, edited by Priscilla P. Soucek, pp. 177–91. University Park, Pa., and London, 1988, pp. 181–82. verso–Shahjahan Ridding a Stallion

INSCRIBED: (on inner border in Shahjahan's
hand) "work ['amal] of Payag"

PEERLESS Shahjahan was always shown in profile to avoid the demeaning effrontery of being seen head-on by viewers. In his supremely imperial portraits, every jewel, sash end, and whisker are as perfect as his smile. Payag's equestrian image conforms to this rubric–even
the horse is idealized.[1] The single dissonant note is struck in the horizon line, which has a jarring, ragged unevenness. Although Shahjahan demonstrated military and political astuteness as a prince and was eased onto the throne by hard-fisted, even murderous tactics, as emperor he deliberately insulated himself against day-to-day realities. Thus the emperor's character meshed with the empire's ethos in a thirty-year reign that saw not only a peak of imperial wealth and power but also the early symptoms of decline. Secular as well as religious orthodoxy was on the rise, and court etiquette reached new levels of complexity and strictness. Portraiture reflected these changes. If Akbar and Jahangir spurred artists to ever-deeper revelations of personality; Shahjahan urged them to keep a safe distance and to avoid all signs of changeable moods, of aging and anxiety; or of less than courtly deportment. Using the equivalents of soft-focus lenses and all-concealing cosmetics and spotlights, artists reshaped reality to create an immaculate, unapproachable symbol of empire personified. Shahjahan's likenesses deny the passage of time; his beard was eventually shown as gray; but otherwise it is impossible to date his portraits by wrinkles or pouches. Artists reserved accuracy of observation–on a sliding scale–for lesser beings, such as younger members of the royal family; courtiers, common soldiers, or craftsmen. Only enemies and holy men were exposed to total candor.

In Mughal India artists' lives were usually more tranquil and longer than those of emperors and princes. Payag, like his older brother Balchand, was trained in Akbar's ateliers, after which he adjusted his style to each successive idiom. For him, creative partnership ran smoothest not under Akbar or Jahangir but under Shahjahan, for whom he provided several remarkable historical illustrations as well as single miniatures and at least one drawing. His pictures can be divided into two types, both of which he painted with evident pleasure:
formal"state" pictures, such as the present one, and more personal ones, in which he dared express deeper feelings. In the former the Mughal court is on public display; fully primped; in the latter, his most remarkable and original achievements, Sturm und Drang prevail. Moodily dark, these compositions–the greatest of which were made for the Windsor Padshahnama–offer Grand Guignol scenes of bleeding soldiers, moldering corpses and skeletons, pensive ascetics, and toothy old veterans. To accentuate somberness, they are placed in awesome mountainscapes or in picturesque hamlets, frequently lit by shadowy moonlight, flickering lamps, or the flash of exploding rockets.
Payag's battle and genre subjects must have evoked ambiguous responses from Shahjahan. Cracking through courtly insulation, they describe lost battles as well as victories and lay bare private fears. It is to his credit that Shahjahan not only admired their artistic quality but also included such pictures in the official history of his reign.[2]

For an early nineteenth-century copy of this portrait, see FGA 39-46a (pl. 86 in this volume). An early nineteenth-century traced drawing, in reverse, with splotched color notations, also inscribed to Payag, may be the "link" between the present original and the copy.[3]

Stuart Cary Welch in [Welch et al. 1987]

THIS VERSO portrait has the margin number II and belongs to Group A. The page has no cutout poetry in the innermost border but has the typical gold-on-pink inner border of flower heads and palmette scrolls. The colored plants on the buff ground of the outer border are perforce of small scale, the only identifiable one being a possible cyclamen in the upper left corner. Within the picture the pair of birds flying on the left are pigeons (Columba species?), while those on the right are hoopoes (Upopa epops).

Marie L. Swietochowski in [Welch et al. 1987]

1. Govardhan's more spirited study of the stallion, seen from the other side, appears in a miniature for the Windsor Padshahnama, fol. 133r, showing fourteen-year-old Prince Aurangzeb spearing an outraged elephant as his father looks on.

2. Payag's inscribed works for the Padshahnama are fols. 91v, 101v, and 213v; uninscribed ones attributable to him are fols. 48v, 51r, 115v, 175v, and 194r, as well as The Siege of Qandahar (Welch, Stuart Cary, India! Art and Culture 1300–1900. Exh. cat. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1985, cat., no. 162b).

3. See Loan Exhibition of Antiquities: Coronation Durbar, 1911. Delhi Museum of Archaeology, [1911]., no C136, pl. XLvb. recto–Calligraphy

Thanks be to God Most High and Glorious that obedience to Him leads to proximity and that by thanking Him there is increase in bounty. And every breath that goes down is an extension of life, and when it comes up it is an exhilaration for the essence. That means that in every breath there are two graces inherent, and for every grace, gratitude is necessary.
The poor sinner 'Ali the scribe [al-katib]

This prose passage was cut out from another page and pasted together to form a new calligraphic page. Missing dots were added when the background was painted.

The text expresses a traditional Sufi belief: grace requires thanks, and gratitude in turn produces new bounty. The idea that breathing has a twofold grace was known to the early mystics of Islam, but it may be that this piece belongs to a Naqshbandi treatise, perhaps to a writing by Jami or his followers, for the Naqshbandi order laid special emphasis on breathing during the recollection of God.

Annemarie Schimmel in [Welch et al. 1987]

LIKE ITS verso, this recto page has a border of plants in various colors on a buff ground. A narcissus can be found in the upper left comer and an iris left of center in the lower border. Surrounding the calligraphy is a tulip at right center with a narcissus below it and another in the lower left comer. In the lower right corner is an ipomoea. At the left center the plant is perhaps a crocus with a poppy above it.

This painting probably came from an album of royal portraits not related to others in the Kevorkian Album. In any case it could not have belonged to Album 3 of Group A, as the border pattern conflicts. It is the only folio in Group A that uses colored plants on a buff ground as the scheme for both borders.

Marie L. Swietochowski in [Welch et al. 1987]
Signature: recto:
In Persian, last line of calligraphy: The poor sinner 'Ali the scribe.
Microscopic signature of Payag on the golden tip of the emperor’s bow.

Inscription: Inscription in Persian in nasta‘liq script:
عمل پایاگ
Work of Payag
Jack S. Rofe, Scotland (1929; sale, Sotheby's, London,December 12, 1929, to Kevorkian); [ Hagop Kevorkian, New York, from 1929]; [ Kevorkian Foundation, New York, until 1955; gift and sale to MMA]
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Emperor's Album: Images of Mughal India," October 21, 1987–February 14, 1988, nos. 59 and 60.

Zurich. Museum Rietberg. "Wonder of the Age: Master painters of India, 1100–1900," April 30, 2011–August 21, 2011, no. 40.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Wonder of the Age: Master Painters of India, 1100–1900," September 26, 2011–January 8, 2012.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Wonder of the Age: Master Painters of India, 1100–1900," September 26, 2011–January 8, 2012.

Welch, Stuart Cary, Annemarie Schimmel, Marie Lukens Swietochowski, and Wheeler M. Thackston. The Emperors' Album: Images of Mughal India. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987. no. nos. 59, 60, pp. 202-205, ill., verso pl. 59 (color); recto pl. 60 (b/w).

de Montebello, Philippe, and Kathleen Howard, ed. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Guide. 6th ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992. p. 329, ill. fig. 40 (color).

Okada, Amina. Imperial Mughal Painters: Indian Miniatures from the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Paris: Flammarion, 1992. p. 211, ill. fig. 248 (b/w), verso.

Burn, Barbara, ed. Masterpieces of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York; Boston: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1993. p. 85, ill. (color).

Stronge, Susan, Khushwant Singh, Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh, Patwant Singh, A. S. Melikian-Chirvani, B. N. Goswamy, Rosemary Crill, Ian Knight, David Jones, B. N. Goswamy, F. S. Aijazuddin, and Divia Patel. The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms, edited by Susan Stronge. Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 1999. no. 27, p. 64, ill. pl. 63 (color).

Crill, Rosemary, and Kapil Jariwala. The Indian Portrait, 1560–1860. London: National Portrait Gallery, London, 2010. p. 29, ill. fig. 5.

Beach, Milo C., Eberhard Fischer, and B.N. Goswamy. Masters of Indian Painting. Vol. Vols. I, II. Zurich, Switzerland: Artibus Asiae Publishers, 2011. vol. I, pp. 322, 329, ill. fig. 6 (color).

Ekhtiar, Maryam, Sheila R. Canby, Navina Haidar, and Priscilla P. Soucek, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 250C, pp. 340, 358-60, ill. p. 359 (color).

Guy, John, and Jorrit Britschgi. Wonder of the Age: Master Painters of India 1100–1900. New York and New Haven: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 40, pp. 89-91, ill. p. 91 (color), p. 90 (color detail).

Haidar, Navina, and Courtney Stewart. "Jewels from the Al-Thani Collection." In Treasures from India. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014. p. 80, ill. (color).

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