When Masters Meet

During the height of the Golden Age, the Dutch East India Company or VOC (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie) not only brought art with them to gain access to the Asian market (or so they believed), they also brought back exotic items from their travels to the East.

We are all familiar with blue and white Chinese porcelain, later a great influence on Dutch Delftware. Who can forget the introduction of the tulip and the influence it had on interior design and even business in 16-17th century Holland. The ‘Tulip Mania’ at the time in the Dutch Republic was the first recorded speculative bubble, which today is compared by some with Crypto currency and NFT’s.

Shah Jahan and his Son, Rembrandt van Rijn, after anonymous, c. 1656-1658

The inception and consequent height of the VOC coincides with the rule of two of the most artistically influential of the Mughal rulers in Mughal India, Emperor Jahangir and his son Emperor Shah Jahan. At the same time master Rembrandt van Rijn was one of the most successful portrait painters in what was then Holland.

It was, however, at the end of Rembrandt’s career that these two worlds would collide and masters would meet as he created a series of drawings of these Mughal emperor’s inspired by the elegant style of imperial Mughal miniature painting. Like the pottery manufacturers in Delft drawing their inspiration from China, Rembrandt was intrigued and inspired by the large quantities of foreign art and artifacts that where brought from the Indian seaport of Surat to Holland. 

Being the most in demand portrait painter of the time he probably first encountered Indian miniature paintings in the rich collections of his patrons. Scholars also mention that Rembrandt already had a basic knowledge of Mughal emperors from various writings and paintings which circulated outside India as Samuel Purcha mentioned in his account of The Embassy of Sir Thomas Roe to the Court of the Great Mogul, 1615-1619. Not only did he study the Indian culture he also was a collector as we notice from an inventory of his possessions, drawn up in 1656 as a result of his bankruptcy. It describes a number of art objects from around the globe, including items from Mughal India.

Historians mention about twenty-three surviving ‘Indian drawings’ of the twenty-five Rembrandt made, based on miniatures from the Mughal empire that he saw in seventeenth-century Dutch collections and presumable studied over a long period. He made eight portrait drawings of Shah Jahan, more than he made of any other Mughal ruler, carefully studying the trappings of imperial magnificence. The style of drawing was one of precision and refinement, a great difference from the style that Rembrandt was known for.

The rich exchange of art between east and west, the influence it had on Rembrandt, would be the only time he made such an extensive study of an art form so dramatically different from his own.

Shah Jahan (Mughal Emperor) by Rembrandt van Rijn, c. 1656-1661

Contributing author: BvG / Marie Claire van Schooten – van Gelder
Cultural marketeer & consultant – Social entrepreneur – @marieclairevg