This is a superb portrait, attributable to one of the greatest Mughal artists at the height of his powers. It demonstrates extraordinary artistic skill, eclectic influences and thematic originality on a profound level.
It was part of an album assembled for Prince Khurram (later Shah Jahan, r. 1628-57) in 1611-12, and bears the prince's handwriting on the verso, on a panel of marbled paper, along with his signature "the slave Khurram ibn Jahangir Padshah". The inscriptions supply evidence that Prince Khurram was modelling his handwriting on that of his father Jahangir. Three library accession notes have been copied, one dated 1014/1605-6, appears to have been copied from Jahangir's accession note on the flyleaf of the Victoria and Albert Museum Akbarnama. Another, with the same date, is a slight variation of the same inscription, and the third is an accession note from another manuscript with the date 1015/1606-7 (see Sotheby's, London, 1 December 1969, p.61; Welch 1976, p.31, Brand and Lowry 1985, cat.41, pp.146-7).
The drawing has been attributed by Cary Welch and others to Basawan, circa 1575-80. The figure has been described most often as a Learned Man, but also as a Venerable Sufi and an Old Sufi. The portrait depicts a male figure of mature years and corpulent frame, rather concentratedly reading a book. He is shown seated on the floor, reclining against a cushion, with several objects and a cat around him. The drawing is executed in the nim-qalam technique, a technique that Basawan used to great effect in imitation of the grisaille manner of European engravings. The drawing is very expressive and psychologically acute, with great attention paid to volume and spatial aspects.
Basawan was one of the greatest masters of the imperial Mughal atelier. Original, technically immensely skilful, acute in observation and profound in expression, his many works show a sense of artistic confidence, individuality and talent that was supreme in its day. Amina Okada described him as "one of the greatest artists of his time and the most accomplished painter at Akbar's court. His original and eminently personal style, receptive to the pictorial lessons bequeathed by Western art and nourished by subtly assimilated Persian references, characterizes Akbari art at its apogee – eclectic, consistent, masterful." (Okada 1991a, pp.15-16).
He was greatly celebrated in his own time, and he contributed to many of the illustrated manuscripts made for Emperor Akbar. He also produced a number of individual portraits and group scenes, often ink drawings or works in nim-qalam, and on several occasions copying, or at least strongly referencing, European prints, of which the present work is a superb example. The subject of this portrait is not obviously derived from a single European image, but it relates to at least two images of saints. The first is of St. Matthew the Evangelist, of which Kesu Das produced a version dated 1587-8 (Bodleian Library, Oxford, see Topsfield 2008, no.11, pp.30-31), which shows St. Matthew seated in a reclining pose, with his left hand holding the page of a book and his right hand writing in another book held by an angel. A cat, a ewer and a bowl are placed in the foreground. The second is the image of St.Jerome, in which the saint is shown seated in a room reading or writing (the image represents him translating the Vulgate Bible) with a lion at his feet (the lion's presence is based on the story that he removed a thorn from a lion's paw) and the lion is often depicted in a rather cuddly, tame, almost cat-like manner. An engraving of a work by Lucas Van Leyden of 1513 shows just such an image, even down to the way the saint is holding several pages of the book open with his fingers, as here in the Basawan drawing. In the present work Basawan, in typically confident and masterful style, has produced a portrait that is graphically brilliant and that expresses a dynamic and powerful originality and a complete understanding of both Mughal and European aspects.
The varied influences on Basawan's style gave rise to an interest in naturalism, observation and expression – both psychological and physical – that is often intense and direct. In the present case the figure of the man is acutely observed and candidly depicted. The taught, rotund belly is made larger and rounder by the position in which he is seated and the tightness of the waistband, so that the protrusion of the belly is pushed upwards towards his chest, providing a useful shelf upon which to rest his book. In contrast to this almost humorous passage, the face of the man carries a look of scholarly intensity and concentration, with wrinkled brow and thoughtful eyes. The physical presence of the figure is such that we feel we are not just looking at him, but sitting in the same room.
The key characteristics of Basawan's style are all present: graphic mastery, naturalism, psychological intensity, depiction of volume, love of flowing folds of drapery, originality of subject matter and composition. The portrait can be related to other works by Basawan, both in overall character and in individual compositional details. The closest in overall character is a nim-qalam portrait of a Seated Man even more corpulent and almost caricatural (Freer Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., see Okada 1991a, fig.12, p.13), which shows very similar treatment of the full belly, the tight waistband and the particular manner of drapery (notice the cuff of our figure's left sleeve and compare it to the flaring arms of the Seated Man's short-sleeved tunic; and our figure's hanging folds around his right ankle and shin and those around the Seated Man's right ankle). Even the puffy cushion against which both figures recline seems to be by the same hand. Certain facial characteristics of our figure can be discerned in a number of other works by Basawan, including Tamarusha and Shapur at the Island of Nigar in an illustrated copy of the Darabnameh (British Library, see op.cit. fig.4, p.5, Welch 1985, no.94) and A Mullah Rebukes a Dervish for Pride in an illustrated copy of the Baharistan (Bodleian Library, Oxford, op.cit. fig.5, p.7). While the various objects placed around the Learned Man in the present work are relatively standard elements mostly borrowed from European prints and employed by several Mughal artists, these particular examples have a strong similarity to the objects in a drawing by Basawan of A Young Woman and an Old Man (Musée Guimet, Paris, op.cit., fig.10, p.12). Closely comparable are the book, the footed bowl, the scribe's box, the ewer and the scroll (even down to the way the scroll lies flat on the box and then droops and curls over the edge).
For further discussion of Basawan see:
Okada 1991a; Okada 1993; Beach 1981, pp.83, 100-102; Verma 1994, pp.83-94; Welch 1985, nos.87, 88, 94, 108, 110; Welch 1961.
In private notes Cary Welch had occasionally thought that this portrait might be the work of Daswanth, another of the great master's of Akbar's atelier, ranked third in Abu'l-Fazl's list of the best painters of the royal atelier, but in the published references, both those by Cary Welch and others (see above) the attribution is to Basawan. For a pertinent discussion of the differing styles of Basawan and Daswanth, see Beach 1981, pp.94-95.
A group of twenty-five leaves from the same album, including the present drawing, was sold in these rooms 15 June 1959, lot 118 (illustrated in the catalogue). They were acquired by Hagop Kevorkian of New York. Seven of these leaves, again including the present one, were sold again in these rooms, 1 December 1969, lot 126-132. Other folios are published as follows: Binney 1973, cat.no.49; Grube Kraus, no.239, pl.LIII.
Paper, watercolour, ink
Indian Drawings and Painted Sketches: 16th through 19th Centuries, The Asia House Gallery, New York; the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge; the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, the Avery Brundage Collection, 1976
Indian Drawing, the Hayward Gallery, London; the Wolverhampton Art Gallery; the Herbert Art Gallery, Coventry; the Bolton Museum and Art Gallery; the Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield, 1983
Akbar's India: Art from the Mughal City of Victory, The Asia Society Galleries, New York; the Arthur M. Sackler Musuem, Harvard University Art Museums; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1985-1986
Drawing:12 by 11.2cm. (4¾ by 4 3/8 in.) Inner borders: 21.7 by 13.4cm. (8½ by 5¼in.) Calligraphy panel: 18.1 by 9.5cm. (7 1/8 by 3¾in.)
Welch 1976, no.7, pp.34-35
Hodgkin and McInerney 1983, no.1
Brand and Lowry 1985, no.41, pp.79, 146-7
Brand 1987, fig.7.25, p.119
Verma 1994, no.118, p.92
Sotheby's, London, 15 June 1959, lot 126
Hagop Kevorkian Collection, New York
Sotheby's, London, 1 December 1969, lot 126