Rembrandt: Dutch Master and his Mughal Miniatures

Rembrandt: Dutch Master and his Mughal Miniatures

2019 marks the 350th death anniversary of master painter Rembrandt and many exhibitions have been planned across the year and the globe to celebrate the works of the great genius. But perhaps, because he was one of the greatest geniuses in the history of art, many other aspects of Rembrandt’s life leading up to his burial in an unmarked grave have somewhat remain undiscussed.

Self-Portrait,Rembrandt van Rijn,1652, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

In the 1650s, with tragedies of his personal life behind him, Rembrandt started to acquire art from all over the world. This rare collection of Old Masters Paintings, prints, and antiquities included busts of the Roman Emperors, suits of Japanese armor among many objects from Asia, as well as we as collections of natural history and minerals. This collection of ‘drawings and prints from the master of the world,’ once bailed him out of bankruptcy in 1656 but eventually was not worth enough leading Rembrandt to sell his house and printing press. What has often remained undiscussed is, however, despite his descent into extreme poverty, this collection presented him as a connoisseur in cross-culture art exchange in the world and also allowed him to indulge in the arts of the other side of the worlds without moving an inch. Many articles of his collection are now a part of Museum Het Rembrandthuis, a historic house where Rembrandt lived and worked in the house between 1639 and 1656 and now a museum in Amsterdam.

Rembrandt’s collection room recreated at Museum Het Rembrandthuis, Amsterdam.

The inventory list from the sale of his collection survived and as it turns out, there were many items in the inventory that were stated as East Indian or Indian. They included East Indian, cup, boxes, basket, and fans as well as sixty Indian hand weapons, including arrow, shafts, javelin, and bows, and a pair of costume for an Indian man and woman. One of the items, listed in this inventory as item 203 was described as ‘a book of curious drawing in miniature as well as woodcuts and engraving on copper and various costume,’ Examples of miniatures painting found in Mughal Era can be seen below.

  • A Prince with a Falcon
Four Orientals seated under a tree, Rembrandt, circa 1656-1661 Photo credit British Museum

It has been debated, but never specifically proved, that these curious items could have been the miniature paintings from the Mughal court in India that inspired this great master to produce a collection of 23 etchings that were unlike anything he had done before. Drawn in the last years of his life and on expensive Japanese paper, they were copies of the speculated Mughal miniature collection he had but nonetheless stands out for its detailing and richness. As said, there are no specific records of Mughal Miniatures sourced from India in Rembrandt’s inventory but to put the history of Dutch occupation in India in perspective it hardly comes as a surprise. It, in fact, comes at the intersection of the vast trade practices of Dutch East India Company or Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie VOC as it was called and the importance of art practices in India during the Mughal era.

After the start of the trade in 1604 along the coast from Surat to Calcutta, VOC factories and warehouses spread across a far larger area than the company controlled in the East Indies archipelago. Surat became an important port for the company for it was the natural crossroad of Agra and Delhi, two of the most important cities in all of the Mughal kingdoms.

The VOC factory at Houghly in Bengal. Hendrik van Schuylenburgh, 1665

To say that the Mughal rulers that the Dutch East India company dealt with were lovers of art would be a gross understatement. Believing that artists “were the delight of all the world,” the second of Mughal Emperor Humayun invited several Persian masters to his court from Persia and central Asia. And not to just him, art was an integral and central part of their identities of all Mughal rulers. Quoting his son, Akbar the Great, his biographer Abu’l Fazl wrote:

“More than a hundred painters have become famous masters of the art, while the number of those who approach perfection, or those who are middling, is very large … It would take too long to describe the excellence of each. My intention is ‘to pluck a flower from every meadow, an ear from every sheaf’.”

Rejecting the ultra-orthodox Muslim notions, Akbar mused:

“There are many that hate painting, but such men I dislike. It appears to me as if a painter had a quite peculiar means of recognising God; for a painter in sketching anything that has life, and in devising its limbs, one after the other, must come to feel that he cannot bestow individuality upon his work, and is thus forced to think of God, the giver of life.”

Emperor Jahangir Receiving an Officer, Rembrandt, 1654-56, pen, bistre, and wash on Japanese paper. The British Museum, London.

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