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The Privilege of Paint: Portraits from the Courts of India

December 20, 2008–June 28, 2009

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the royal painting workshops of the Mughal emperors introduced to the Indian subcontinent a type of portraiture based on accurate renderings of physiognomy and individualized facial features. This new, more naturalistic manner of representing the human figure was at the same time highly idealized and formulaic. Subjects were frequently portrayed in strict profile with rigid postures and unwavering stares, which lent a sense of timelessness and distance to the overall composition. Artists focused especially on details of costume as well as swords, jewels, and other objects associated with royalty in order to emphasize the subject's wealth and prestige. Far from being candid likenesses taken from ordinary life, Indian portraits of this period were flattering depictions of the most elite members of the royal courts. Women of the court, meanwhile, were avid collectors of portraits, but were generally excluded from the privilege of direct portrayal themselves. Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, portraiture was a major component of the arts of the royal courts across India. More than just representations of pretty faces, portraits were powerful tools of persuasion. Both Muslim rulers (the Mughals and the Deccani sultans of central India) and Hindu Rajput kings in the north and west relied upon the portrait medium to present convincing statements about their military prowess and legitimacy. The paintings in this exhibition, selected from the Museum's rich collection, explore issues as diverse as the depiction of identity, expressions of court life and royal lineage, how artists painted themselves, and even what constituted a portrait and what did not.

Main Building


Darielle Mason • The Stella Kramrisch Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art
Yael Rice • University of Pennsylvania History of Art Department

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