Rebecca Posner: European Influences on Mughal Portraiture

The Mughal empire was the dominant political force in India from the early sixteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth century, and its rulers oversaw a large number of impressive artistic achievements.  Most historians seem to agree that the dynasty began with the invasion of India in 1526 by Babur, the first Mughal ruler, although others contend that the Mughal empire did not truly become a fully stable entity until the rule of Akbar, Babur’s grandson.[1]  Regardless of the exact year that the empire began, however, it is certainly the case that the art of painting in this region of the world underwent a major change under Akbar and his descendants.  Portraiture in particular became much more individualized and experimental.

The art of the Mughal dynasty was heavily influenced by Persian techniques of painting throughout the years of its production.  Figures were depicted in a somewhat flattened manner, usually in profile, and there was little variation in facial features or body types.  Emotions were depicted through gestures and poses rather than expressions.  This technique can be seen in the Akbarnama, which is a book that was commissioned and created during Akbar’s life that told stories of his most noteworthy exploits.  It also contained lavish illustrations of many of these episodes.  In most of the illustrations, Akbar can be distinguished from the other figures, but the majority of the people depicted tend to have a fairly generic appearance.[2]  However, this lack of individuality in portraiture began to change as the influence of European outsiders on the empire increased.  In particular, the visits of several groups of Jesuit priests to the Mughal court (beginning in 1580) during the reign of Akbar helped catalyze several major changes in the technique of Mughal artists, especially when it came to portraits.  Akbar and his court artists were much impressed by the more naturalistic ways in which European artists illustrated scenes, and in some cases they even began to incorporate images of Christian stories and saints into their work (not from religious motives, but simply out of artistic appreciation).[3]  In addition, Akbar commissioned an unprecedented number of portraits of the members of his court from his artists, and this practice continued to a certain degree after his death.  Many of the portraits contained much more individualized and specific depictions of people’s facial features than what was previously the standard.  More generally, both Akbar and his successor, Jahangir, became interested in creating accurate visual records of all manner of objects, including plants, animals, and historical scenes.[4]  Portraiture was just one out of the many fields of visual art which were affected by this new, more detail-oriented approach.

Traditionally, most Muslim clerics frowned upon depicting human figures in art, especially art intended for religious purposes.  However, there is a multitude of examples of Islamic art from many regions and time periods that go against this prohibition; there are instances of human imagery in art created for Muslim patrons that can be dated almost from the very beginnings of the religion.[5]  It is possible that this was justified by the idea that “the specific formal language developed and applied by artists distanced the total visual field of the two-dimensional painting from the sensation of actual vision…[which] eliminated the risk of reading the painting as real.”[6]  In other words, certain techniques that Islamic artists used (such as a lack of traditional perspective, clearly outlined figures, and faces with homogenous features) were designed to remind the viewer that they were looking at a painting or a drawing, rather than a scene from reality.  This could perhaps be interpreted as a way of preventing accusations that the artist was trying to rival the creative abilities of God by making a new imitation of reality.  Some Muslim artists and scholars also attempted to legitimize the concept of portraiture by relating a story that claimed that the biblical prophet Daniel had created a “Chest of Witnessing” containing portraits that he painted of various other prophets.  These images were said to be “copies…after the divinely created archetypes.”[7]  Thus, the process of making portraits was given additional validity by tying it to Daniel, an important historical and religious figure.  Portraiture was also reframed as a tribute to God’s human creations that merely made an attempt to record various aspects of divinity, and thus avoided the stigma of potentially trying to compete with God’s creations.  It was reported that Akbar held a similar view on portraiture, saying, “It appears to me as if a painter had a quite peculiar means of recognizing 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, and will thus increase in knowledge.”[8]  In other words, Akbar seems to be saying that artists were actually learning more than they would otherwise about God and the wonders of his creation by painting living creatures (instead of abstract patterns, for example).  Art could be perceived as an exercise in humility and admiration for God, rather than a way for artists to put their own creations above the living things that already existed in the real world.

The increasing popularity of European art during this period of time may have facilitated this new, more favorable view of figurative art.  The example of European Catholic artists, who heavily used images of people as a way to spread the teachings of their religion, may have helped to further normalize the idea of depicting people somewhat realistically in art.  This is not to say that Mughal artists subscribed to Christian religious convictions at all, even though they “meticulously copied scenes from Christian iconography and Bible stories.”[9]  Akbar and his courtiers were willing to hold theological discussions with the visiting Jesuits, but they never showed any interest in converting to Christianity.  Rather, they were interested in taking certain visual elements of Christian (or more generally European) art and essentially translating them into a form that worked within the confines of their artistic practices.  This goal was evident beginning with one of the very first encounters between Akbar and the Jesuits, when he was taken to see paintings of the Virgin Mary in a chapel at Fathpur owned by them.  Akbar made a special point of bringing along “his chief painter and other painters,” in addition to his usual following of courtiers, in order to examine the paintings.[10]  Clearly, he was at least as (if not more) interested in making sure his artists learned about new techniques as he was in the ideological content of the art.

The most straightforward of the methods of visual translation used by Muslim Mughal artists was that of simply copying scenes from European art, as stated above.  In terms of portraiture, however, the effect was slightly subtler.  In general, the most obvious effect was increased interest in portraying the individual and unique characteristics of the sitter for a portrait, rather than simply giving them generalized physical features and accessories that were meant to represent their social status (as had been more usual in the past).  For example, a portrait of Zain Khan (the son of Akbar’s childhood nurse and his foster brother) created for Akbar’s comprehensive book of court portraits depicts a man with a somewhat round face, a short nose that curves downwards slightly, and a distinctively determined expression.[11]  These personalized features make him appear very different (and much more lifelike) when compared with the numerous background figures in, for example, the Akbarnama, where the men typically have similarly shaped, somewhat narrow eyes and noses and are distinguishable only through slight variations in facial hair and costume.  It is true that there were still relatively strict conventions for Mughal portraiture, however, in spite of the new emphasis on the unique qualities of each person’s face.  The subjects of most of the portraits in Akbar’s portrait book (including Zain Khan) were shown standing against a plain green background with little depth.  They almost always were depicted with their faces in profile while their bodies faced the viewer.

A striking example of a highly individualized portrait that goes against these conventions can be found in a small ink sketch of Akbar himself, made by an unknown artist.  It only depicts his head and shoulders, and he looks downwards so that his eyes appear to be almost closed.  The contours of his face have a much more three-dimensional appearance than they do in more formal portraits of him; the artist has added a few fine lines to indicate the small wrinkles under his eyes, the shape of his cheekbones, and the shadows on his chin.  The individual hairs in his mustache and sideburns are delineated with great care.  The positioning of his shoulders suggests that he is holding something in his hand and examining it.  The contemplative, informal mood of this sketch, in addition to its naturalistic approach to its subject, is very different from the representation of Akbar that can be seen in his official biography, where “individual personalities are shown not by means of their realistic likeness, but by…the characteristic or cognitive attributes of an individual and the role he occupies…showing kingly attributes, for instance, through allusive iconographic qualities.”[12]  Thus, people’s individual characteristics are displayed and seen in terms of specific symbolic attributes and accessories, rather than their true appearances.  In Akbar’s case, this usually entails a visually central placement in the scene from his life that is being enacted, as well as the use of certain prescribed gestures and poses that indicate his regal attributes.  In terms of the appearance of his face, Akbar does not look particularly unusual compared to the figures surrounding him; he generally has a thin, neatly kept mustache and perhaps a slightly rounder face than some of his followers, although this latter difference is quite subtle.  His clothing is often more ornate or brightly colored than that of others, which is presumably meant to both increase his visibility in scenes that are often quite crowded and to remind the viewer of his wealth and royal status.  Various accessories, including parasols, weapons wrapped in red cloth, and turban jewels are also used by the artists to achieve this purpose.[13]

In some cases, accessories and pictorial conventions that have specifically European origins make appearances in portraits of the Mughal nobility.  For example, a portrait of Jahangir, Akbar’s son and successor, is quite large (it is life size) compared to other Mughal portraits, and its dark, somewhat opulent color scheme has more in common with European images of royalty than brightly colored, delicately painted Persian miniatures.[14]  Jahangir is seated in a Western-style chair, which is relatively unusual; normally the subjects of Mughal portraits were depicted standing, as stated earlier.  Jahangir was known to be interested in large scale Western portraits of this type, so it is unsurprising that he had one made of himself.  Another type of image that was popular in Europe for centuries was the equestrian portrait, and this began to appear during the late sixteenth century in India (during the reign of Akbar).  One of the earliest examples is a portrait of Zain Khan riding a white horse and holding a falcon.[15]  The portrait combines the traditional Western pose of a heroic looking man on a rearing horse with the more detail oriented, linear painting techniques associated with Islamic art.  Zain Khan’s face in this portrait retains the distinctive features that were seen in the image of him from the court portrait album.  Both of these examples simultaneously adhere to the new techniques of illustrating facial features and add additional Western elements to create an interesting hybrid of Islamic and European pictorial conventions.

After the reigns of Akbar and Jahangir, the borrowing of certain European artistic techniques continued in Mughal art, although the quantity of new innovations within art lessened somewhat.  During the reign of Aurangzeb, who was the last truly effective Mughal ruler, Mughal culture became more conservative and less religiously pluralistic overall.  As a result, the governmental emphasis on calligraphy and more abstract, explicitly religious art increased, although portraits and other forms of secular art were still produced to a certain degree.[16]  Some promising topics of further research in this area might include: a more in-depth study on the initial encounter between the Mughal court and the European Jesuits; comparisons between portraiture under the Mughals and other Muslim empires, such as the Safavids and Ottomans; an inquiry into whether or not Western culture had a noticeable effect on other aspects of Mughal culture, such as poetry or architecture; or a study of how European artists in turn may have been influenced by Mughal artistic practices.  In the case of Mughal painting and drawing, it seems clear that Mughal artists were interested in borrowing from outside influences in order to enrich their own works; one could view this interest as an example of a positive and fruitful exchange between cultures.


[1] Streusand, Douglas E. Islamic Gunpowder Empires: Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals. Boulder: Westview, 2011. Print.  Page 201.

[2] Stronge, Susan. 2002. Painting for the Mughal Emperor: The Art of the Book, 1560-1660. New York; London: V&A.  Page 101.

[3] Crill, Rosemary, Kapil Jariwala, and National Portrait Gallery (Great Britain). 2010. The Indian Portrait, 1560-1860. London: National Portrait Gallery Publications, National Portrait Gallery.  Page 25.

[4] Crill, Page 62.

[5] Yuka Kadoi. “Portraits in Islamic art.” Grove Art OnlineOxford Art Online. Oxford University Press, accessed December 11, 2016,

[6] Roxburgh, David J. “Concepts of the Portrait in the Islamic Lands, C. 1300-1600.” Studies in the History of Art 74 (2009): 118-37.  Page 120.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Stronge, Page 14.

[9] Crill, Page 54.

[10] Stronge, Page 102.

[11] Zain Khan Koka, Akbar’s foster brother. C. 1690-1600. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

[12] Stronge, Page 101.

[13] Crill, Page 27.

[14] Attributed to Abu’l-Hasan. Jahangir Holding a Globe. 1617. Private Collection.

[15] Zain Khan Koka on Horseback. C. 1590-1600. Frits Lugt Collection, Institut Néerlandais, Paris.

[16] Mohammad Jafar Mahallati. Lecture Notes. 10/28/2016.