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Saint Jerome

Keshav Das

Not on view

This work, signed “Kesu Das,” was adapted from a European source, in all probability an engraving by Mario Cartaro published in 1564. The wide circulation of European Christian prints in Mughal India in the late sixteenth century proved to be an important source of imagery and of new approaches to pictorial rendering for Mughal painters. Such engravings were assembled into albums at the imperial library. The ultimate source of Keshav Das’s Saint Jerome is Antique Roman imagery of Neptune, their god of the sea. Michelangelo’s drunken Noah in the Sistine Chapel (completed 1512) represents a famous moment in this figure composition’s evolution and a source accessible to Cartaro in Rome some fifty years later. Following Cartaro’s engraving, the Mughal artist merged two sets of European imagery, the drunken Noah in slumber and the studious Saint Jerome holding a book of learning. Das was exploring a painterly technique more akin to European oil painting than to Indian watercolor, and the atmospheric haze of the distant city vista, again a gesture to European conventions, serves to heighten the dreamlike quality of Saint Jerome’s slumber.

About the Artist

Keshav Das
Active ca. 1570–1604/5, at the Mughal courts in Delhi, Lahore, Agra, and Allahabad

The Hindu painter Keshav Das was an early local entrant into Akbar’s atelier, probably at the instigation of the Iranian master painter Khwaja ‘Abd al-Samad, who oversaw the studio at this time and had been instrumental in recruiting widely in order to complete the monumental Hamzanama project (1557–58 to 1572–73). He proved to be a prolific artist, producing major contributions to many imperial volumes, including an edition of the Ramayana (Jaipur Palace Museum) to which he contributed no less than thirty-five full-page compositions. Akbar ranked Keshav Das fifth in the imperial studio, according to Abu’l Fazl’s official history of the reign. While Mughal painters had a habit of inserting their self-portraits discreetly into the margins of crowd scenes, Keshav Das created an early self-portrait in which he is the sole subject and a later work in which he shares the stage with his emperor and patron, Akbar. Skilled in the Mughal conventions of blending the strong Indian palette with the soft pastel tonality of Timurid courtly styles, he was equally at ease applying these skills to Islamic, Hindu, or indeed, Christian subjects.

Keshav Das is remembered most however as the preeminent and creative explorer of the European mode at the Mughal court. Akbar encouraged Jesuits and western diplomats to circulate Christian imagery at court; in 1580, he invited a Jesuit delegation from Goa that presented printed bibles and religious oil paintings to the emperor. Jahangir continued this interest, actively collecting Flemish and German engravings that were made accessible to his court atelier. English Ambassador to King James I, Sir Thomas Roe, presented miniature cameo portraits that engaged the attention of Jahangir, who immediately had them copied. With their use of linear and atmospheric perspective and an intense interest in portraiture, these works stimulated numerous local copies and adaptions, and Keshav Das was regarded as the master interpreter of them.

Most significantly, European art at the Mughal courts triggered an awareness of alternative pictorial solutions, particularly the use of chiaroscuro and spatial depth. Undoubtedly, the heightened Mughal interest in portraiture of this period was stimulated in part by that exposure. Keshav Das’s receptivity to European art went beyond that of his contemporaries; he explored the tonal modeling of musculature in new ways and brought an innovative approach to landscape, especially the creation of middle and far distance through the subtle use of perspective and atmospheric effects.

Saint Jerome, Keshav Das (active ca. 1570–1604), Opaque watercolor on paper, India (Mughal court at Delhi)

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