India (Rajasthan, Bikaner)
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper; 16 x 12 in. (40.6 x 30.5 cm)
Fletcher Fund, 1996 (1996.100.7)
Maharaja Sardar Singh (r. 185172) is captured here in an extraordinary portrait whose painter was undoubtedly aware of the inroads photography was making among royal patrons. The painting exhibits what at first glance seems an almost photographic realism. However, Chotu has carefully manipulated the picture's elements to play two- and three-dimensional forms off against each other, achieving an almost surreal effect. Note particularly how the lower edge of the beard continues the line of the cushion and how the outlines of cushion, beard, shoulders, and window frame converge, making the maharaja's head appear to float before the gray rectangle of the window. The unearthly quality is heightened by the composition's commanding symmetry, even down to the cleft beard and the bosses on the shield. The dominant vertical axis is balanced by strong horizontals. A few asymmetrical elements offset the regularity, including the pleated shawl and garment and the fantastical turban, which is like some postmodern assemblage crowning the brooding visage.