Most people who think about art created by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn picture dark tinged oil paintings of Dutchmen like “The Night Watch” or his many somber self-portraits. But late in his career, the renowned 17th century Dutch Baroque artist—known simply as Rembrandt —became fascinated with art from the Mughal Empire. Rembrandt’s meticulous renditions depicting his inspirations from India are very different than his other work, and are now on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Rembrandt (1606-1669) is widely seen as one of the great masters of art for both the quality and quantity of his output. Among the artist’s works that survive are 23 drawings he made based on pieces created by artists working in Mughal India. Twenty of them are on display in the Getty’s “Rembrandt and the Inspiration of India” exhibition on view until June 24, 2018. They offer a sense of the master as an art fan wanting to study what other artists were achieving elsewhere in the world.
“Artists feed off other artists,” noted museum director Timothy Potts, He pointed out that the Dutch master does not adapt the Indian art and remake it in his style. He painstakingly studies and recreates images. Potts said they expect the exhibit to be very popular because “the Rembrandt people will see here is so different from the Rembrandt they know.”
Within the Exhibit
The exhibition pairs Rembrandt’s surviving drawings of Mughal leaders and courtiers with paintings and drawings created by artist from the Indian subcontinent. The works were brought to Amsterdam from a Dutch trading post in Surat, a busy Indian seaport since colonial days.
Art in 17th century Europe was dark in nature, largely because of the cost to make vibrant colors. However, the work coming from India used colors derived from ingredients in the area: blues made from ground Afghan lapis, purples derived from lac beetle secretions, and yellows from the urine of mango-eating cows. They burnished the pieces with agate to add depth and luminosity.
In drafting his versions, Rembrandt did not reproduce the images in their exact form and vibrant colors. He sketched them and added shading. However, he clearly adjusted his regular style to imitate the delicate work of the original craftsman. His paid attention to details in the clothing, turbans, jewelry, and footwear depicted. As Stephanie Schrader, Curator of Drawings and organizer of the exhibition, pointed out, “On some of the works you can see scratching out and redrawing as he tried to get them just right.”
“The critical eye and attentive curiosity Rembrandt turned towards Mughal portrait conventions still captivates viewers,” Schrader noted. Even though these were drawn late in his career, “the meticulous rendering is exceptional,” she added.
Unlike other Islamic dynasties, the 16th and 17th century Mughal rulers made their love of the arts part of their identity. Rembrandt’s art depicts Akbar (who reigned from 1556 to 1605), the first great Mughal art patron who assembled a royal atelier; his son Jahangir (leader 1605–27); and his successor Shah Jahan (the ruler from 1627 to 1658) well known for building of the Taj Mahal.
Shah Jahan ruled during the period in which Rembrandt worked. He made more drawings of him than any other Mughal ruler. For example, he drew Shah Jahan and his son (above) using ink and a brown wash. He scratched into the ink on the beard to add highlights. By contrast, a Mughal depiction of Shah Jahan created by an Indian artist, Bichitr, between 1630-40 (inset), uses the texture and colors typical in his area. He also notably depicted the Shah floating on heavenly clouds affirming his Sunni faith, but added angels bearing a crown that seem to reflect his interest in European religious art.
The opportunity to see these and other works, many of which are on loan from Europe, side by side is rare. The Getty exhibit showcasing Rembrandt’s inspirations derived from art created in India is on display until June 24.
By Dyanne Weiss
Exhibit visit March 12, 2018
Getty: The J. Paul Getty Museum Presents Rembrandt and the Inspiration of India March 13–June 24, 2018
The Met The Art of the Mughals after 1600
The Heritage Lab: In Paintings: Rembrandt & his Mughal India Inspiration
Photos by Dyanne Weiss of “Shah Jahan and His Son, 1656-1661,” by Rembrandt, on loan from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and “Jujhar Singh Bundela Kneels in Submission to Shah Jahan, ca. 1630-40, by Bichitr, on loan courtesy of the Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, Ireland.