A draughtsman, painter, and printmaker – Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was a man of many talents whose legacy today is of one of the greatest visual creators in art history, more so, Dutch art history. He is known for many things – the realism of his work, his ability to capture drama and emotions, his play of light and shadows. He played with styles and techniques to create something that was so unique to his handiwork and yet would often contradict itself – one hand being hyper-real and on the other, muting of facial features against the light. Be it The Night Watch, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, or The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, it’s hard not to be entranced by his masterpieces.
The most unexpected (for us at least) part of his extensive and respected oeuvre are a series of 22 Mughal miniature-style drawings. How did a this master artist come to be influenced by an Indian art form thousands of miles away? As it turns out, Rembrandt himself never travelled to the Indian subcontinent, but the possibility of him coming into contact and acquiring Mughal art and artefacts is not as farfetched as you’d expect.
The 17th century saw the growth of Dutch trading with the East India Company, which in turn meant the exchange of cultures, artefacts, influences, and well, art among other imported goods. It’s possible that these artworks found their way into the collections of Dutch art collectors and their markets. Where Rembrandt first encountered them is not for certain, but the impact that it had on him to experiment in a new style piqued by this foreign form of creation is clear.
“Goods such as those Rembrandt owned were imported in large numbers into Amsterdam on Dutch East India Company ships that left the port of Surat, where the Dutch merchants had established a foothold in 1616. Surat was the natural crossroads of two overland trade routes to Agra and Delhi, cities favoured by Mughal emperors Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb. Rembrandt depicted all three emperors in his drawings,” said Dr. Stephanie Schrader, curator at the Department of Drawings, J. Paul Getty Museum which is currently showcasing Rembrandt’s Mughal miniatures in an exhibition titled ‘Rembrandt and the Inspiration of India’, in Los Angeles, USA, till June 24. Dr Schrader also edited a book of the same name which “examines the impact of Indian art and culture on Rembrandt (1606–1669) in the late 1650s.” It comprises of essays by Dutch and Indian art scholars who analysis what inspired Rembrandt to “draw in an entirely new, refined style on Asian paper.”