- J. P. Losty
In 1618 the Mughal emperor Jahangir (reg 1605–27) wrote in his memoirs that Abu’l-Hasan’s ‘work was perfect…At the present time he has no rival or equal… Truly he has become Nadir al-Zaman (“Wonder of the age”)’. Some of this artist’s paintings are among the greatest in Mughal art. He was born in Jahangir’s household in 1588, the son of the erstwhile Safavid artist Aqa Riza. Abu’l-Hasan’s earliest known work, a drawing based on Albrecht Dürer’s St John and executed when he was only 12 (Oxford, Ashmolean), already shows in its naturalism the trend of his mature work. A single painting in a manuscript of the fable-book Anvār-i Suhaylī (‘Lights of Canopus’), probably done in 1604 (London, BL, Add. MS. 18579), develops the naturalism of his portraiture but still contains a Safavid landscape based on his father’s work; his sense of respect for the latter is indicated by his signing himself here ‘the dust of Riza’s threshold’. He maintained throughout his career the meticulous finish of the Safavid style (see fig.).
The most famous painting of his youthful maturity is his Squirrels in a Plane Tree (1605–7; London, India Office Lib.), depicting 12 squirrels gambolling in a plane tree while a hunter below tries to climb the trunk. The painting combines his new mastery of volume, shown in the squirrels, the hunter and the tree trunk, with homage to the Safavid masters in the landscape background with its gold sky and mauve hills. The general composition seems to have been based on a page executed by ‛Abd al-Samad in 1555–6 in the Muraqqa‛-i gulshan or Gulshan Album (Tehran, Gulistan Pal. Lib.). This youthful masterpiece seems to have earned Abu’l-Hasan the privilege of being portrayed before 1608 with a select group of other masters on a page by Daulat in the Gulshan Album.
There are few pictures attributable to Abu’l-Hasan between the Squirrels and the remarkable group of paintings produced in the ten years after 1615, which shows his powers at their height. Some of these were intended for the Jahāngīrnāma, the imperial copy of Jahangir’s memoirs. It was Abu’l-Hasan’s presentation in 1618 of the Celebrations at Jahangir’s Accession (St Petersburg, Acad. Sci.) that induced Jahangir to write so fulsomely about his favourite artist. It was also to Abu’l-Hasan that Jahangir turned for pictorial expression of his moods, whether political wish-fulfilment or his preoccupation with the poet Sa‛di’s idea of a ‘dervish-oriented kingship’ in which the king put away from himself the cares of state but came to Paradise because of his love for holy men: the Emperor may have been seduced by Abu’l-Hasan’s increasing powers of realism into attributing to these fantasies power to heal what he thought of as his wounded spirit. Two of Abu’l-Hasan’s finest paintings illustrate Jahangir’s regard for dervishes and increasing contempt for kingship. A double page (one half 1615, the other possibly slightly later; Washington, DC, Freer, and Baltimore, MD, Walters A. Mus.) shows Jahangir with his sons and surrounded by his chief noblemen, his feet resting on a globe; court officials usher into his presence the long-dead Sa‛di and other mystics while the Ottoman and Persian emperors stand rejected. In another painting (1619; Geneva, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan priv. col.) Jahangir shows himself to his people at the jharokā window in the Agra Fort from which early in his reign he had let down a golden chain hung with bells to be rung by those seeking justice; however, in the painting officials drive suppliants away while the Emperor gazes at a holy man who has taken up residence in a hut below.
Abu’l-Hasan also painted the most important political paintings of Jahangir’s reign. In one example (1616–17; Dublin, Chester Beatty Lib.) Jahangir is depicted as an archer standing on a globe shooting an arrow at the severed head of the black Malik ‛Ambar, the general of the Ahmadnagar army. Since Malik ‛Ambar lived until 1626, this painting is pure wish-fulfilment, as is Abu’l-Hasan’s painting of 1618–20 showing Jahangir Embracing Shah ‛Abbas I of Iran (Washington, DC, Freer). This is Abu’l-Hasan’s supreme representation of his master and one of the greatest of political pictures. Whereas Jahangir Shooting the Head of Malik ‛Ambar is weighed down by symbolism and quotation, the new picture speaks for itself. Ostensibly a representation of the friendship between Jahangir and Shah ‛Abbas, it shows the two rulers standing on a globe on their respective countries; in fact the powerful Jahangir is pushing the deferential figure of Shah ‛Abbas off into the Mediterranean. Jahangir’s head is encircled by the sun and moon, a reference to his title of Nur al-Din (‘Light of religion’). A later picture (1623; Washington, DC, Freer) adds yet another dimension to imperial iconography: Jahangir, fully armed, stands on top of a segment of the globe in remote, godlike isolation from a battle being fought between his forces and those of his rebellious son Shah Jahan (reg 1628–58) represented by tiny figures in the vast green plain below.
There is no further evidence of Abu’l-Hasan’s work apart from a few accession portraits executed early in the reign of Shah Jahan. As he was so closely identified with Jahangir, he is unlikely to have found much favour with the new ruler. Abu’l-Hasan remained in many respects a deeply conservative artist. Although he consciously adopted European naturalism in portraiture, he refrained from experimenting with expanding the background of his pictures, which are remarkable for their flatness. This seems to have been a conscious decision, since it serves to highlight his powers of realistic portraiture. More than any other Mughal artist, his fame rests on his status as a portrait painter to Jahangir, the portrayer of the Emperor’s moods and innermost desires. In this he was unequalled, both in his portrayal of Jahangir’s gradual imaginative withdrawal from the world and in the iconographic imagery that accompanied this spiritual progress.
- A. Rogers, trans.: The Tūzuk-i-Jahāngīrī or Memoirs of Jahāngīr, ed. H. Beveridge (London, 1909–14)
- R. Ettinghausen: ‘The Emperor’s Choice’, De artibus opuscula XL: Essays in Honor of Erwin Panofsky, ed. M. Meiss (New York, 1961), pp. 98–107
- R. Ettinghausen: Paintings of the Sultans and Emperors of India in American Collections (New Delhi, 1961)
- A. K. Das: Mughal Painting during Jahangir’s Time (Calcutta, 1978)
- The Grand Moghul: Imperial Painting in India, 1600–1660 (exh. cat. by M. C. Beach, Williamstown, MA, Clark A. Inst., 1978)
- The Imperial Image: Paintings for the Mughal Court (exh. cat. by M. C. Beach, Washington, DC, Freer, 1981)
- J. P. Losty: ‘Abu’ l Hasan’, Master Artists of the Imperial Mughal Court, ed. P. Pal (Bombay, 1991), pp. 69–86
- L. Y. Leach: Mughal and Other Indian Paintings from the Chester Beatty Library (Dublin, 1995), pp. 1097–8, nos 3.22 and 3.25
- Prince, Poets & Paladins: Islamic and Indian Paintings from the Collection of Prince and Princess Sadruddin Aga Khan (exh. cat. by S. R. Canby; London, BM; Cambridge, MA, Sackler Mus., and elsewhere; 1998–9)
- T. McInerney: ‘Three Paintings by Abu’l Hasan in a Manuscript of the Bustan of Sa‛di’, Arts of Mughal India: Studies in Honour of Robert Skelton, ed. C. R. Crill, A. Topsfield and S. Stronge (London and Ahmadabad, 2004), pp. 80–94