Indias Mughal emperors, who reigned over a vast and wealthy empire that extended over most of the South Asian subcontinent between the 16th and 19th centuries, were passionate about lavish manuscripts and paintings. Between 1556 and 1657, the greatest Mughal patronsthe emperors Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahanformed grand workshops that brought together and nurtured Indias leading painters, calligraphers and illuminators.
This remarkable artistic legacy is on view in Worlds within Worlds: Imperial Paintings from India and Iran at the Sackler
July 28 through Sept. 16. The exhibition brings 50 of the finest folios and paintings from the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery collections, which together form one of the worlds most important repositories of Mughal and Persian painting.
The exhibitions title, Worlds within Worlds, refers to the complex layering of multiple images within single folios, their many references to Persian and European styles and subjects and the emperors sense of self as world rulers.
The exhibition is a highlight of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallerys 25th anniversary celebration in 2012.
For the great Mughal emperors, the arts of the book embodied refinement and imperial identity. Sophisticated connoisseurs, they took a personal interest in their artists and their individual styles. In a constant play of tradition and innovation, court painters, calligraphers and illuminators built upon a Persian cultural heritage, cited European motifs and keenly captured the observed world to create a distinctively Mughal ethos.
The greatest Mughal works on paper are intriguing amalgams of portraits, symbols of sovereignty, illuminated borders and calligraphy that announce a distinctive imperial sense of self and dynasty. Their painterly virtuosity can be savored in details ranging from the soft fur of a grazing antelope to the world-weary gaze of a magnificently jewelled emperor.
The exhibition opens with a selection of the Persian book arts that the Mughal emperors collected, revered and encouraged their artists to rival and surpass. Among them is an intricately detailed school scene painted in 1486 for a Timurid ruler in the fabled garden city of Herat, in present-day Afghanistan. It has been ascribed to the artist Bihzadagainst whom all other Persian and Mughal artists were measured.
The second section focuses on the groundbreaking synthesis achieved by Persian emigres and local Indian artists under the emperor Akbar (ruled 1556-1605). The personal dynamism of Akbar and the Mughal fascination for capturing the appearances of people and places shine throughout these foundational works of the Mughal school. Highlights include three dreamlike works by the renowned Farrukh Beg that demonstrate how artists with distinctive styles contributed to the broader imperial image.
The final two groups of works were created under Akbars son and grandson, whose names, Jahangir (Seizer of the World) and Shah Jahan (King of the World), reveal the dynastys growing sense of imperial power within the world. The emperor Jahangir ruled from 1605-27 when the Mughal empire was stable, vast, incredibly wealthy and globally connected. His artists brought the Mughal aesthetic to its peak of technical refinement, as illustrated in the Gulshan album folios and lacquer book cover that are a highlight of the exhibition. These exquisitely realized works freely appropriate motifs and styles from diverse sources into richly layered tapestries of image and meaning.
The exhibition concludes with a selection of superb folios produced for the albums of Jahangirs son, the emperor Shah Jahan (1627-57). Like the palaces and Taj Mahal that he built, these are extraordinary works of perfection. Highlights include six folios from the Late Shah Jahan Album, which have sumptuous borders that exemplify the emperors love of jewels, flowers and grandeur.
In honor of the Sacklers 25th anniversary year, Worlds within Worlds will be accompanied by another Sackler milestone: the publication of the revised and expanded Imperial Image, written by the pre-eminent Mughal painting historian and former director of the Sackler, Milo Beach. The revised Imperial Image expands on the original, published in 1981, by including the great Mughal paintings in the Sackler Gallery and Freer acquisitions over the past three decades.