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The Shah Jahan Album

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The Shah Jahan Album, also known as the Emperor's Album or Kevorkian Album, features fifty illustrated and calligraphy folios, forty-one of which belong to the Metropolitan Museum, and nine of which reside in the collection of the Freer Gallery of Art. This spectacular album, which contains intimate nature studies, portraits of the royal family and various dignitaries, and fine examples of illuminated folios of calligraphy by renowned calligraphers, offers a glimpse into the courtly life and diverse interests of its patrons.


This spectacular album, which contains intimate nature studies, portraits of the royal family and various dignitaries, and fine examples of illuminated folios of calligraphy by renowned calligraphers, offers a glimpse into the courtly life and diverse interests of its patrons.

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The album was initiated by the Mughal emperor Jahangir (r. 1605–27), and passed onto his son Shah Jahan (r. 1628–58), who added several paintings, illuminations, and calligraphy folios. It eventually came into the possession of Shah Jahan's son Aurangzeb (r. 1658–1707). Little is believed to have been added by this final imperial patron, but the presence of his seal on one folio confirms that he was once the owner. Finally, around 1820, eleven more folios were added and the album was rebound. The added pages were completed in a style imitative of the seventeenth-century Mughal paintings and are characterized by a degree of stiffness and flatness of form. Thus, the album as it stands today is a collection of folios produced from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries.


As seen in this album, the single-page painting attains prominence in Mughal art from the mid-sixteenth century onward. These, along with pages of illuminated calligraphy, were often collected and bound into compilations, referred to as "albums," or muraqqas, a practice that originated in early fifteenth-century Iran. Under the Timurids (1389–1508), albums usually included existing works in the patron's collection, as well as works created specifically for the album, such as paintings and drawings, folios from preparatory pattern books, and calligraphy specimens. The earliest written evidence of album production in the Mughal period is from the reign of Akbar, Jahangir's father, though the earliest extant albums date from the reign of Jahangir. Unlike earlier paintings which illustrated an accompanying text, sensitive studies of nature and individualized portraits predominate in this album. The picture is no longer subordinated to the text, and the figures that people the pages of this album are rendered with an emotional sensitivity not seen before in the arts of Mughal India. Instead, we find paintings in which the aged Akbar leans on the hilt of his sword, holding a rosary in his right hand (55.121.10.22). His fleshy neck and the gentle folds above his eyes express the weight of his age.


Another folio (55.121.10.29) depicts four high-ranking nobles of the Mughal court with highly individualized and naturalistic facial features, standing in highly formalized postures within a generic landscape. Features such as the majestic sloping nose of the courtier in the top right of the painting and the snub nose of the nobleman at the bottom left distinguish each figure. Nonetheless, highly idealized portraiture continued, epitomized by the painting of “Shah Jahan on Horseback,” (55.121.10.21) in which the ruler is elaborately adorned and haloed, seated on an imperial stallion. In its variety of styles and diversity of subjects, Mughal portraiture demonstrates the diversity of the Mughal court itself. In a portrait of Maharaja Bhim Kunwar (55.121.10.2), a Hindu and a favorite of Shah Jahan who had fought beside him in battle, the nobleman stands regally, depicted in profile, among flowers that seem to sway in the wind.


As portraiture flourished in the arts of seventeenth-century Mughal India, so did pictorial studies of nature, particularly those of Jahangir's favored painter, Mansur. For example, in a rendering of a nilgai in a landscape (55.121.10.13), the animal dominates the field and becomes the focus of the painting; while in Red-Headed Vulture and Long-Billed Vulture (55.121.10.12), the scavengers are shown in profile, offering a view of their exquisitely detailed plumage. The subtle shading at the borders of the birds' feathers gives the illusion of recession of space and volume. Using pictorial techniques imported from European art, such as modeling and perspective, artists like Mansur were able to render the nilgai and the vultures with greater naturalism.


Illumination in the margins of the folios and pages of calligraphy show a similar penchant for the depiction of the natural world. The painting Prince Khurram (Shah Jahan) with His Son Dara Shikoh, by Nanha (55.121.10.36), features a quiet moment between the ruler and his son. The haloed Shah Jahan faces his young son, who plays with a turban ornament and peacock feather. Surrounding the father and son, peacocks, pea fowl, chukor partridges, and various flowers inhabit the margins. In a folio of calligraphy (55.121.10.4), sheep and deer graze among the lines of nasta'liq script and flowering plants enliven the verse. Each bird is positioned distinctively, and each flower delicately rendered, demonstrating the attention lavished on the depiction of flora and fauna in seventeenth-century Hindustan.


Though new styles and subjects of painting enjoyed unprecedented patronage during this period, the inclusion of pages of opulent illumination attest to the continued patronage of more traditional forms of book art. The album now exists as separate leaves, but the bound original would have opened to a shamsa, or sunburst vignette carrying the imperial cipher of Aurangzeb (55.121.10.39). The sunburst is surrounded by marginal decorations punctuated by mythical animals, elegant arabesques, and delicate foliage in gold leaf. The feathers of the tail of the simurgh, which are rendered in minute detail, swirl above and below the shamsa, reflecting the continued presence of the Persianate styles fostered by Shah Jahan and Jahangir's predecessors.


The shamsa may have then been followed by the unwan, or illuminated double-page frontispiece. These works (55.121.10.38; 55.121.10.39) are peerless examples of the artistry of the illuminator in early seventeenth-century Mughal India. They bear the characteristic tripartite composition, with broad friezes above and below the narrow central calligraphed panel.


Calligraphy continued to be a venerated art, and as with the unwan, numbers of poems and word plays executed in an elegant nasta'liq script grace the pages of this album. One folio features the work of Sultan 'Ali Mashhadi (fl. 1453–1520), a venerated calligrapher of the Timurid court (55.121.10.32). His fluid script is encased in cloud-shaped compartments and set at an angle on the page, with each line separated by scrolling floriated vines. This intricate arrangement of calligraphy and illumination is characteristic of Mughal albums, and repeated time and again in the display of calligraphic specimens. Notably, numbers of Timurid-era works are included in this and other Mughal albums, evidencing the value accorded to Timurid art by the patrons of the Shah Jahan album.


The Shah Jahan Album, augmented and changed since its first incarnation under Jahangir, is considered a true masterpiece of Mughal art. What began as a private collection for the emperor Jahangir wended its way through a Delhi art dealership in the nineteenth century, to an obscure antique shop in Scotland in the first decades of the twentieth century, ultimately arriving in New York to become a gem of the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Rashmi Viswanathan
Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art