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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Art of the Mughals after 1600

After the death of Akbar, architect of the Mughal empire and active patron of the arts, his son Jahangir (r. 1605–27) ascended to the throne. As a prince, Jahangir had established his own atelier in Allahabad and had strong artistic tastes, preferring a single painter to work on an image rather than the collaborative method of Akbar’s time. He also encouraged careful plant and animal studies, and prized realistic portraiture and Europeanized subjects. The books Jahangir commissioned ranged from literary works such as the Razmnama (a Persian translation of the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata) to historical texts, including an illustrated version of the memoirs of his reign, the Tuzuk-i Jahangiri. But more common from his era are lavishly finished albums containing paintings and calligraphy samples mounted onto pages with decorative borders and then bound with covers of stamped and gilded or painted and lacquered leather. If he could not obtain a work he wanted, he had it copied, and at one time dispatched an artist to Iran to paint a likeness of Shah ‘Abbas.

Jahangir’s claim that he could instantly recognize any painter’s work is a reflection of the rise of the individual artist. Many signatures are preserved on works from this period, with such masters as Bishan Das, Manohar, Abu’l-Hasan, Govardhan, and Daulat emerging as recognizable artistic personalities.

Jahangir’s successor Shah Jahan (r. 1628–58) is most celebrated for his architectural achievements, the Taj Mahal being his (and perhaps the country’s) best known monument. He commissioned this tomb for his wife after her death in 1631 and it took sixteen years to complete. The building is set on the bank of the Jumna River in Agra with a formal eightfold garden and reflecting pools in front, its elevation of inlaid white marble striking against the red sandstone of the other buildings in the complex. After moving the capital from Agra to Delhi in 1648, Shah Jahan built a new city there, called Shahjahanabad, and a congregational mosque (1650–56), the largest in all of India. Paintings from his reign were characterized by formal portraits and courtly scenes, replacing the more wide-ranging and personal subject matter under Jahangir. The major commission of his reign was a history called the Padshahnama, illustrated through the 1640s.

Shah Jahan’s rule was forcibly terminated by his son in 1658. Aurangzeb (r. 1658–1707) held increasingly orthodox Sunni beliefs, and his reign saw the decline of Mughal patronage of the arts. Early portraits of him do exist, and he commissioned some notable architectural projects such as the Pearl Mosque (in the Red Fort at Delhi), but in 1680 he banned music and painting from his court. The emperors who followed him were too weak and the state too poor to support the production of sumptuous paintings and books as before; under Bahadur Shah (r. 1707–12) and Muhammad Shah (r. 1719–48), there was a slight resurgence in the arts, but the 1739 raid of Delhi by Nadir Shah caused much of the city’s population to flee and the artistic community to be permanently dispersed. By the 1800s, the Mughals were nominally still emperors of India, but under the protection of the British.

The reduction of artists in the Mughal painting workshops by Jahangir, Shah Jahan, and Aurangzeb meant that a number of artists had to find new work, and many regional courts benefited greatly from the influx of former imperial employees. Painting at the Hindu Rajasthani courts such as Bikaner, Bundi, and Kota, and at the provincial Muslim courts of Lucknow, Murshidabad, Faizabad, and Farrukhabad, were all transformed as Mughal artists provided fresh inspiration. Among the important subimperial patrons of the early period was ‘Abd al-Rahim Muhammad Khan-i Khanan (1561–1626/27), commander-in-chief of the Mughal armies under both Akbar and Jahangir. A copy of the epic Ramayana (1597–1605)—with 130 illustrations (2008.359.23)—and six other manuscripts can be attributed to his atelier.

The late Mughal era was also a fruitful period for the provincial and regional patronage of architecture (2009.376a,b). The maharaja Jai Singh founded the city of Jaipur, known for its palaces and astronomical observatory built in 1734, and Safdarjang, the nawab of Avadh, erected a tomb in Delhi based on that of Humayun (1753–54).