Selected from Matthew Vassar’s founding gifts and later alumnae donations, this exhibition presents a microcosm of miniature painting from India. These paintings, usually produced to be bound together in manuscripts or albums, are small-scale opaque watercolors often embellished with gold or paired with calligraphy. Among Vassar’s collection are popular compositions in a rich spectrum of colors, patterns, and types.
Between the late sixteenth and late nineteenth centuries, the period during which this art form flourished, a panoply of imperial, regional, and colonial states rose and fell across North India. In this dynamic context, artists and connoisseurs moved from court to court. Their production and exchange of images made a vast array of artistic, literary, religious, and political references legible across time and space. Invigorated and inspired by these contacts, local idioms flourished.
Dutch botanicals, Sino-Persian clouds, Indian war elephants, Judeo-Christian angels, Rajput princes, European linear perspective, Central Asian mounted archers, British colonials, and Hindu yogis mingle in these scenes. Some of Vassar’s paintings come from imperial centers like Delhi, Agra, or Lahore; most originated in the semi-independent kingdoms of the Punjab hills, Malwa plateau, or Rajasthan. Amidst this considerable diversity, all celebrate the wonders of creation and immanence of the divine; the virtues of self-control; and the joys of connoisseurship and courtly life.
Beyond the finished picture, this exhibition also includes workshop drawings and a page of exploratory sketches that reveal the working methods of artists creating the paintings. Stock scenes met popular demand for established iconography and ideally proportioned figures. Paintings of gods and kings were more than mere illustrations: correctly depicted, they were powerful talismans. Ragamala paintings, too, used standardized iconography to help viewers physically experience the essential moods of the musical modes they evoked. Talented artists nevertheless found plenty of scope to innovate, packing their paintings with unexpected allusions and layered meanings that challenged and delighted connoisseurs.
Organized by the Art Center with Julie E. Hughes, Assistant Professor of History. Thanks to Marika Sardar; Divya Cherian; Hamid Reza Ghelichkhani; Lars Odland '17; and Irfan Badruddin '20.
This exhibition is on view through April 23, 2017.