For centuries in the Islamic world, books have been treasured as precious objects worthy of royal admiration. This was especially true for India’s Mughal emperors, who reigned over a vast and wealthy empire that extended across most of the South Asian subcontinent. The greatest imperial patrons formed grand workshops that brought together and nurtured India’s leading painters, calligraphers and illuminators. Today, the lavish manuscripts and paintings they created remain a vibrant part of India’s cultural and artistic history.
In his popular 1981 book The Imperial Image: Paintings for the Mughal Court, Milo Cleveland Beach, pre-eminent Mughal art historian and former director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, presented the Freer’s superb collection of Mughal painting. This newly revised and expanded edition adds many of the outstanding works that entered the collection upon the opening of the Sackler Gallery in 1987, as well as the Freer Gallery’s acquisitions over the past three decades.
The combined Freer and Sackler collections mark one of the most important repositories of Mughal and Persian paintings in the world.
“The original 1981 publication opened a new era of connoisseurship in Mughal art,” said Julian Raby, director of the Freer and Sackler galleries. “The revised and expanded version not only documents the recent explosion of research and interest in imperial Mughal art, but also stands as a testament to the lasting influence of a true gentleman and scholar, Dr. Milo Beach.”
A related exhibition titled “Worlds within Worlds: Imperial Paintings from India and Iran” opens July 28 and showcases more than 50 of the galleries’ most illustrious works. Between 1556 and 1657, the greatest Mughal patrons—the emperors Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan—created a remarkable artistic legacy of masterpiece folios. The exhibition’s title, “Worlds within Worlds,” refers to the complex layering of multiple images within single paintings, the influences of Persian and European artwork and the emperors’ sense of self as world rulers.
In honor of the release of his updated publication, Beach will give a lecture on the Gulshan Album, one of the world’s greatest illustrated books, Wednesday, Sept. 12, at 7 p.m. at the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium. Assembled in 1605 by Emperor Jahangir, the album contains the finest of the paintings, drawings and calligraphies that the young ruler collected from a wide variety of distinct geographic areas and cultural traditions.
The publication, exhibition and lecture are highlights of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery’s 25th anniversary celebration in 2012. “Worlds within Worlds: Imperial Paintings from India and Iran” is on view through Sept. 16.
An introductory essay examines the Mughal art of the book and traces the contributions of a succession of rulers in Muslim India. Mughal manuscripts of the Ramayana and the Gulistan of Sa’di, along with exceptional collections of images, such as those assembled in the Late Shah Jahan Album and the St. Petersburg Album, complement single paintings and portraits of leading figures in the imperial court.
Full-color illustrations invite close examination of the intricate details that enliven these folios: intriguing amalgams of portraits, symbols of sovereignty, illuminated borders and calligraphy. 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 jeweled emperor.
Pre-Mughal images, paintings from the Deccan and works from the later British period establish a broader context for these manuscripts and albums. Brief artist biographies and an extensive bibliography complete this updated volume.
Copublished by the Freer and Sackler galleries and Mapin Publishing, The Imperial Image: Paintings for the Mughal Court (cloth, $75; 232 pp., 264 color illustrations) is distributed by Mapin and available in the Sackler Gallery store.
The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, located at 1050 Independence Avenue S.W., and the adjacent Freer Gallery of Art, located at 12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W., are on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day, except Dec. 25, and admission is free. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information about the Freer and Sackler galleries and their exhibitions, programs and other events, the public may visit asia.si.edu