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Four Centuries of Paintings and Manuscripts from the Indian Subcontinent

CAT. NO. 13

Chameleon by Mansur Mughal, c.1612

Painting in ink and opaque watercolour including gold metallic paint on brown paper | 11.0 x 13.8 cm | RCIN 912081

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The artist Mansur was able to capture not only the physical texture of living, breathing birds and animals, but also a sense of their inherent nature. However, concepts of naturalism and realism, so revered in Western art of the period, were by no means the primary concern of Mughal painting. The Mughal Emperors Akbar and Jahangir (r. 1605–27) commissioned their artists to paint likenesses of birds and animals, particularly those which they found striking or unusual, primarily for documentary purposes. Jahangir noted in his memoirs that the chameleon ‘constantly changes colour’, a peculiarity which is perhaps hinted at in this painting of the small, slow-moving reptile with the turquoise-green tones of its skin used again in the leaves of the branch where they merge with yellowing hues.

The specific species recorded in the painting is the Chamaeleo zeylanicus, native to southern India and Sri Lanka, and this is likely to be the earliest instance of its being documented pictorially. Mansur accurately depicts the precise details of its anatomy: the crested head, abdominal ribs and scaled contours, even capturing the white stripe that runs along its throat and belly. Its face is in profile but its protruding eye is swivelled back, gaze firmly fixed on the insect hovering nearby. It clings to the branch with its clenched feet and the tip of its coiled tail, perfectly poised to project its sticky tongue towards its prey. Mansur’s painting positions the chameleon in an appropriately arboreal context, yet this setting may not derive purely from scientific observation. The earliest Mughal natural history paintings closely relate to Chinese bird and flower paintings on silk, the standard configurations of which may have influenced Mansur’s choice of composition.[34]

Mansur was Jahangir’s leading natural history painter. The Emperor bestowed on him the honorific Nadir al-Asr, ‘Wonder of the Age’, recording in his memoirs that ‘in the art of painting [Mansur] is unique in his time’. In addition to his acute powers of observation, Mansur is still celebrated for his extraordinary handling of paint, here demonstrated in particular by the tiny impasto dots simulating the surface of the chameleon’s skin. On very close inspection a gold crescent is visible, creating a glint in the reptile’s eye. Jahangir often inscribed Mansur’s name onto the master’s paintings himself and a note, now largely erased, written close to the right edge of the painting, may be in the Emperor’s hand. 

  • ustad mansur / Master Mansur

  • [34] See Beach 1987, pp. 36–8.

  • Entered the Royal Collection by c.1728

  • Bibliographic reference(s)

    Goswamy 2014, pp. 275–7; Clayton 2004, p. 116; Verma ed. 1999b, pp. 115–16, 133; Welch 1985, no. 143; Beach 1978, p. 14