Mobile menu

Four Centuries of Paintings and Manuscripts from the Indian Subcontinent

CAT. NO. 72

Akbar Shah II and his sons Mughal (Delhi), before 1830

Oil (unconfirmed) on canvas | 60.9 × 80.8 cm | RCIN 406533

Your share link is...

  Close

This painting depicts the Mughal Emperor Akbar Shah II (r. 1806–37), then aged around 70, seated on an un-throne-like, European-style chair grasping the pipe of a large hookah as he gazes outwards from the canvas. To his left and right are three of his sons, including Mirza Abu Zafar (b. 1775, later Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar). Small Quranic inscriptions written on Abu Zafar’s collar quote Zachariah (‘My Lord, do not leave me childless when you are the best of inheritors’) and Jonah (‘There is no God but You, Glory be to You! Surely I have been one of the evildoers’).[240]

This is the only known European-style portrait on canvas of Emperor Akbar Shah II, who was born during the reign of Muhammad Shah (see cat. nos 37 and 39) and whose lifetime spanned two very different phases of Mughal power. He was born in a period when the authority of the Mughal emperor extended over almost the entire subcontinent but, by the time of his accession, this had been reduced to the confines of the imperial capital of Shahjahanabad (Delhi).[241] Even then, the city was under the direct administration of an East India Company Resident. Akbar II nevertheless quietly asserted his position through the sustained ceremonial and courtly traditions of his ancestors, and was still revered by his subjects far beyond the city walls. 

No known European artists were working in Delhi during the first decade of the nineteenth century, and this painting is perhaps the work of a Mughal painter who had adopted European oil techniques. The fine textile details, impasto effect employed for the jewellery and the Arabic inscription all suggest a local Delhi artist. This artist might be identified as the Emperor’s painter Ghulam Murtaza Khan, uncle of the artist Ghulam Ali Khan whose later well-known portraits of Bahadur Shah Zafar and his sons closely relate to this painting.[242] In his portraits of the Emperor, Ghulam Murtaza Khan typically depicts Akbar Shah II in full-face as here, confronting the viewer as in contemporary European portraits, rather than in the long-established profile view.

Although we do not know the Emperor's thoughts on this portrait, an account of 6 years later records his disdain for the European convention of depicting shadows under the sitter's nose. Having inspected an oil portrait of himself by the Delhi artist Rajah Jivan Ram in early 1836, a British onlooker noted that:

the emperor requested him to remove the great blotch from under the nose. ‘May it please your majesty, it is impossible to draw any person without a shadow; and I hope many millions will continue to repose under that of your majesty.’ ‘True Rajah,’ said his majesty, ‘men must have shadows; but there is surely no necessity for placing them immediately under their noses! The ladies will not allow mine to be put there; they say it looks as though I have been taking snuff all my life; and it certainly has a most filthy appearance, besides, it is all awry, as I told you when you began upon it!’ The rajah was obliged to remove from under the imperial and certainly very noble nose, the shadow which he had thought worth all the rest of the picture.[243]

 

  • [240] Quran 21:89 and 21:87: trans. Droge 2013, p. 211.

    [241] See Farooqui 2013, pp. 3–7. Many thanks to Charles Grieg, Jerry Losty and Yuthika Sharma for their thoughts on this painting.

    [242] Freer Sackler, Art and History Trust Collection, LTS 1995.2.105 and Khalili MSS 987 in Leach 1998, pp. 161–3, cat. no. 45. See also BL Add. MS Or. 2538 and 2539. Ghulam Murtaza Khan was probably related to another celebrated court painter, Khairullah (active c.1800–1830). For Ghulam Murtaza Khan see Sharma 2013, p. 98. ‘Akbar II in Darbar’ by Ghulam Murtaza Khan, dated 4th regnal year (1809/10), Khalili MSS 981, published in Leach 1998, pl. 44.

    [243] Sleeman 1845, vol. II, fol. 258, quoted in Bautze 1998, pp. 97–8 and Sharma 2013, p. 115, and in more abridged form in Archer 1955, p. 68. 

  • Sent by Akbar Shah II and presented by Viscount Combermere to William IV on 5 July 1830.