Many of the East India Company officers who commissioned paintings during the nineteenth century sought a visual record of their own households, including animals, possessions, and servants. Shaikh Muhammad Amir of Karraya specialized in such paintings and depicted these subjects with a naturalism that is both dignified and poetic. In this work the artist has painted a syce, or groom, symmetrically flanked by almost identical horses.
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Title:A Syce (Groom) Holding Two Carriage Horses
Artist:attributed to Shaikh Muhammad Amir of Karraya (active 1830s–40s)
Geography:Made in India, Calcutta
Medium:Opaque watercolor on paper
Dimensions:H. 12 in. (30.5 cm) W. 20 in. (50.8 cm)
Credit Line:Louis E. and Theresa S. Seley Purchase Fund for Islamic Art and Rogers Fund, 1994
A Groom Holding Two Carriage Horses
This watercolor painting depicts an Indian groom, known as a syce, dressed in blue and holding the muzzles of two tall white horses. The trio appears in an almost desolate landscape on the bank of a river; on the opposite bank, a row of low shrubs and bushes is interspersed with small white structures. But these are minute details, and a wide, blank sky constitutes most of the background. The ostensible aim of this painting (a type known from other examples) was to record the property of a British resident in India, but the work seems to have a more particular meaning, in light of the unsettling way in which the groom stares back at us with one eye raised, his two charges blindered.
The painting has been attributed to Shaikh Muhammad Amir of Karraya, one of the three best-known artists working in Calcutta in the nineteenth century, when the city was the capital of the British government and a production center for many works made for British patrons. Whereas the artist Zain al-Din was noted for his plant and animal studies made for Sir Elijah and Lady Mary Impey, and Sita Ram primarily painted landscapes and monuments, Shaikh Muhammad portrayed the members and possessions of British households.
Although this painting does not bear the Persian ascription found on most of Shaikh Muhammad Amir’s works, it compares directly with the numerous paintings by this artist that treat the same theme of grooms and horses. He was active in soliciting patrons and created dozens of such works. Finally, the way that the syce’s right eye is cocked—a detail found in another painting by the artist of a hookah bearer—ties this work to his oeuvre.
Marika Sardar in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. In the collections of the India Office Library and of the Marquis of Dufferin and Ava (illustrated in Room for Wonder: Indian Painting During the British Period, 1760–1880. Exhibition, The American Federation of Arts, New York, and other venues. Catalogue by Stuart Cary Welch. New York, 1978, pp. 69 and 71); and of Mildred and W. G. Archer (illustrated in Indian Miniatures from the Collection of Mildred and W. G. Archer, London. Exhibition, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Catalogue by Mildred and W. G. Archer. Washington, D.C., 1936, no.79); among others.
2. Pal, Pratapaditya, ed. Changing Visions, Lasting Images: Calcutta Through 300 Years. Bombay, 1990, p. 136.
3. Victoria and Albert Museum, London (no. IS 5-1957), illustrated in Archer, Mildred. Company Paintings: Indian Paintings of the British Period. Victoria and Albert Museum, Indian Art Series. London, 1992, p. 103.
A Syce Holding Two Carriage Horses
There is something hypnotic and disquieting about this near mirror image of a , or groom, flanked by almost identical horses. The artist has chosen a pictorial format whose power is as decorative as it is descriptive. The strict symmetry is relieved, however, by subtle differences in the horses' sizes, proportions, and harnessing, as well as by slight left-right variations in the posture and dress of the groom. The darks are very dark and the lights very light, intensifying the decorative appeal of the composition. Although the color is severely restricted, the artist has beautifully realized the feel of Indian light, and the low horizon line makes both the space and the foreground trio appear truly monumental.
This painting's beauty and subtlety testify to the high quality that late Company school artists could attain.
Steven M. Kossak in [Kossak 1997]
Robert Edward Master, Esq., England; [ Terence McInerney, New York, until 1994; sold to MMA]
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Indian Court Painting: 16th–19th Century," March 25–July 6, 1997, no. 81.
London. Wallace Collection. "Forgotten Masterpieces of Indian Painting for the East India Company," December 4, 2019–September 30, 2020, no. 67.
Pal, Pratapaditya. Changing Visions, Lasting images: Calcutta Through 300 Years, edited by Pratapaditya Pal. P. Pal. edition ed. Bombay: Marg Publications, 1990. pp. 134–35.
Dalrymple, William, ed. "Indian Painting for the East India Company." In Forgotten Masters. London: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2019. no. 67, p. 127, ill. (color).
Kossak, Steven M., ed. Indian Court Painting 16th–19th century. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997. no. 81, pp. 130–31, ill. (color).
Ekhtiar, Maryam, Priscilla P. Soucek, Sheila R. Canby, and Navina Haidar, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 287, pp. 342, 402–3, ill. p. 402 (color).
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