Think of the work of Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, and rapturous Biblical scenes spring to mind, alongside rich snapshots from Greek mythology, etchings of everyday life in the Netherlands, and – of course – his many round-nosed self-portraits. Rembrandt is perhaps best loved for the human touches he brings to the canvas, his moments of insightful realism: Ganymede urinating with fear as he is carried off by Zeus in The Abduction of Ganymede; the lacerated soles of the prodigal son’s shoes in The Return of the Prodigal Son. In his poem, Musée des Beaux Art, WH Auden describes this trait with typical shrewdness:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood […]
Rembrandt had an eye for this kind of thing. Look at any of his paintings and you will find – tucked into the background, in the faces of bystanders, their postures, their clothes – some shockingly perceptive detail which firmly grounds the scene in reality. Rembrandt’s sight was defiantly fixed on the human, and the curiosity he showed for the world around him makes his work a delight to revisit to this day.
This curiosity extended beyond his immediate environs. The scope of Rembrandt’s subject matter was not limited to European scenes and familiar Biblical stories: it is astonishing to discover that his interest reached all the way to Mughal India. In the late 1650s, towards the end of his career, Rembrandt drew 23 copies of Mughal Indian portraits. The existence of these unusual Rembrandt drawings begs many questions: how did he come into contact with the Mughal originals? Why did he copy them, un-commissioned? How do we make sense of them in the wider Rembrandt oeuvre?
A current exhibition at the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles attempts to answer these questions, inviting a closer look at the artistic exchange between East and West during Rembrandt’s lifetime. On display are Rembrandt’s drawings alongside a number of Mughal paintings of similar compositions, and a series of Mughal copies of European subjects, together with their Dutch and Flemish originals. Visitors to the exhibition will find portrayals of many of the Mughal emperors, and other noblemen, depicted in both Rembrandt’s hand and those of contemporary Mughal artists. Elsewhere, engravings of – among other subjects – a Danish queen, a Portuguese admiral, the Dauphin of France, and even a hardworking ‘Pancake Woman’, are shown beside copies made by (largely unidentified) Mughal artists. The differences in style are striking.
The idea for the exhibition, titled Rembrandt and the Inspiration of India, took root when curator Stephanie Schrader came across Rembrandt’s Shah Jahan and Dara Shikoh in the Getty Museum collection. This drawing, believed to have been made between 1656 and 1661, depicts the fifth Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan (who commissioned the Taj Mahal), and his eldest son, Dara Shikoh. As with the other drawings in Rembrandt’s Indian series, it is drawn on so-called ‘Asian’ paper, a rare and expensive type of paper that was brought to Holland by the Dutch East India Company. In the absorbing and scholarly catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, Dr Schrader writes that Rembrandt’s use of Asian paper ‘underscored the exotic character of the drawing and would have enhanced the impression that Rembrandt’s copies, like the Indian originals, were luxury objects.’
In other ways, these drawings demonstrate Rembrandt’s intention that they be valued by collectors. In her essay on the subject, Schrader documents the painstaking detail with which Rembrandt created these works: for example, close inspection of Shah Jahan and Dara Shikoh reveals the erasure and redrawing of Shah Jahan’s nose, and the careful inclusion of his ‘newly white beard after the death of his beloved wife in 1631.’ Rembrandt’s familiarity with these Mughal subjects – ‘his intimate understanding of [their] faces, clothing, and jewellery’, in Schrader’s words – ‘must have positioned him well with the international-minded collectors of Amsterdam’.
It is possible that Rembrandt, at this low moment in his career (he applied for cessio bonorum in 1656, a dignified type of bankruptcy), was trying to re-establish himself as an artist with his finger on the international pulse. It is also conceivable, however, that he simply wanted to copy these images for his own collection, his estimable kunsthammer (or art room). The question of intent is one of many issues raised by these drawings – another being whether these works, so anomalous in Rembrandt’s portfolio, are really by him.
In a fascinating contribution to the exhibition catalogue, William W Robinson examines the drawings in the context of Rembrandt’s other work from the period. Although the ‘singular facture and appearance of the copies – their pictorial elaboration, experimental techniques, and meticulous execution – distinguishes them from most contemporaneous Rembrandt drawings’, Robinson writes, there is much evidence, largely founded on ‘common technical traits’, that mark them out to be authentic. The first public record of them was in 1747, in the sale catalogue of Jonathan Richardson the Elder, where they were described as ‘A book of Indian Drawings, by Rembrandt, 25 in number’; from there, they passed through the hands of various collectors (many of whom misidentified the nationality of the figures depicted). The British Museum in London now holds six of these drawings, constituting the largest global collection of them. The Getty’s drawing of Shah Jahan and Dara Shikoh was acquired in 1986.
It is not known what became of the original Mughal paintings from which Rembrandt copied, or – indeed – precisely which works were his sources. Various scholars have argued that the Indian paintings fitted into the walls at the Schönbrunn Palace in Austria (the former imperial summer residence) – painted over in the 18th century by an artist at the Viennese court – share many characteristics with some of Rembrandt’s copies; however, several of the models for Rembrandt’s work have yet to be accounted for.
Still, it is clear that the artist was familiar with the culture of Mughal India. An inventory of his possessions, drawn up in 1656 as a result of his bankruptcy, describes a number of objects from India, including, according to Schrader, ‘East Indian cups, boxes, baskets, and fans as well as 60 Indian hand weapons, including arrows shafts, javelins, and bows, and a pair of costumes for an Indian man and woman.’ This intriguing array of foreign goods was brought to Holland by the Dutch East India Company (VOC), which had established a trading post in the port of Surat, in Gujarat, 1617. The establishment of this trade channel meant that many Mughal objects and paintings were being imported into Amsterdam during this period – and vice versa. As the exhibition reminds us, Mughal artists in the 17th century were also responding to European prints of the period, in a fascinating exchange of subjects and styles. ‘On almost every level, Rembrandt and Mughal court painters operated in completely different worlds,’ Schrader writes. ‘Yet such differences did not prevent these innovative artists from appropriating foreign imagery to reflect upon and enrich their own more familiar artistic practice.’
Seeing these works side by side makes for an interesting exercise in contrasts. Although depicting similar subjects, the idiosyncrasies of the artists are clear. An example of a Rembrandtian stylistic quirk in these Mughal compositions lies in his use of perspective. While the figures in the Mughal originals are largely portrayed in profile, Rembrandt shows a greater awareness of movement and the distribution of weight in the people he depicts, turning their feet out accordingly. In his essay ‘The Global Aspirations of the Mughal Album’, Yael Rice documents the artistic practices Mughal artists of the era applied to European subjects: this includes the addition of colour to the engravings, amendments to the iconography at work in these images, and even the reconstruction of the physiognomy of European royals to more closely align with that of the Mughal dynasty.
This engrossing interchange is vividly represented in Rembrandt and the Inspiration of India, which charts the global connections between two profoundly different cultures. Catherine Glynn, another contributor to the catalogue, finds in Rembrandt’s remarkable Mughal drawings ‘the record of a painter of one “golden age” paying homage to a “golden age” on the other side of the world’. There is much that is surprising in this series of twenty three drawings, but there is also a consistent Rembrandtian theme at play here; the care and attention to detail with which Rembrandt depicts these figures testify to his enduring interest in human nature and his curiosity about the world in which he lived.
BY XENOBE PURVIS
Rembrandt and the Inspiration of India, to 24 June, at The Getty Center, Los Angeles, getty.edu. A catalogue accompanies the exhibition