Portrait of Shah Jahan

Photo: Paul Macapia

Portrait of Shah Jahan

mid 17th century

Particularly in the court of Mughal India, we see greater interest in naturalism and in portraits with individual detail. These qualities are clear in this portrait of Shah Jahan, ruler of the Mughal Empire. The ruler is the focus in this image, although it hints of a landscape, with flowers scattered on a grassy ground and light clouds floating above. Because he is the ruler of a wealthy and far-reaching empire, Shah Jahan's clothing and ornaments are of central importance in this image. Although the portrait is informal, we are still meant to note the Emperor's lavish jewelrynecklaces, armbands, rings and turban ornaments. Even his jeweled slippers, gauzy overshirt and silk trousers are carefully delineated.

The artist of this portrait chose to represent the ruler in profile, which was considered the most flattering and dignified pose for portraits in Mughal painting. Making direct eye contact with the Mughal emperor was frowned on, so representations in profile reflect the way in which a viewer would probably have seen the ruler in person. Although the pose is stereotypical, Mughal artists and patrons were interested in detailed, individualized renderings of the human figure. The figure in this portrait is readily recognizable as Shah Jahan, as images of this ruler from youth to old age are remarkably consistent. But despite the interest in representing an individual, it is impossible to say whether this image reflected Shah Jahan's actual appearance. Mughal artists in general represented figures in a solid manner, with heavy faces and stouter bodies, and did not idealize the human form. What this image does present is how Shah Jahan wished to see himself and how he wanted himself portrayed in official images.

This portrait would have been seen in the context of a specially commissioned book, created at the behest of an individual patron who also selected the images the book contained. Personalized albums of paintings were highly popular and consisted of discrete images that were assembled on the basis of the patron's interests or predilections. No overarching theme or story bound the images together, and the patron was free to add or remove images at will. The album format was a flexible and personalized type of book, and it was these qualities that ensured its popularity throughout the Islamic world.
Opaque watercolor and gold on bamboo paper
6 3/4 x 4 1/8 in. (17.2 x 10.5 cm)
Gift of Rachel Young Maas, Thomas B. Young, Richard T. Young, in memory of their father, Arrigo M. Young
Provenance: Mr. Imre Schwaiger, Delhi, India; Rachel Young Maas, Thomas B. Young, Richard T. Young donated to Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, Washington in honor of their father, Arrigo M. Young, March 7, 1959.
Photo: Paul Macapia
Not currently on view

Art for the Palace/Tent

Secular Islamic manuscripts feature a variety of themes-some of them fantastic and mythical-illustrating popular literary and poetic works. Other manuscripts represent the lives and daily activities of the people who commissioned them-royal and elite patrons who populated the court in the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries.

The imagery in these secular Islamic manuscripts mirrors the lives of people in the upper levels of society and depicts their favorite pastimes. The images display a high degree of fantasy: court figures and rulers are represented in an ideal form, as they wished to be seen rather than the way they actually were. A certain tension exists between the real and the imaginary. One cannot be truly certain if what one sees is historically accurate.
The Alhambra, Grenada, Spain
Photo: Jaron Berman

Related Objects in SAM's Collection

Photo: Paul Macapia
Emperor Jangahir in pavilion with attendants, 18th century, Mughal, 38.155
Photo: Paul Macapia
Portrait of a Safavid Prince, late 16th century, Persian, 40.36
Photo: Paul Macapia
Portrait miniature, Shah Jahan, 17th century, Indian, 59.46


One theme that characterizes secular Islamic manuscripts is portraits of rulers and society's elite. Portraiture became a significant genre of painting in the Islamic world in the seventeenth century. Rulers were generally not accessible to the public, so when their images were distributed widely, they provided a level of contact between the ruler and his subjects.  Contact with Europe brought more interest in the naturalism of portraiture, an art form that had been popular in the Western Mediterranean since Greek and Roman times.  
Portrait Miniature, Shah Jahan, 17th Century, Indian, 59.46


Karen Mathews, Assistant Professor of Art History, University of Miami, talks about Shah Jahan
Karen Mathews, Assistant Professor of Art History, University of Miami, discusses art for the palace or tent


Exhibition HistorySeattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, "Images of Power", December 12, 1986 - September 21, 1987 (12/18/1986 - 09/21/1987)

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