The golden age of the Mughal Empire was during the reigns of three emperors: Akbar (reigned1556-1605), Jahangir (1605-27) and Shah Jahan (1628-58). Their mighty empire covered the whole of current day northern India, along with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kashmir. Akbar is said to have had a strong interest in the art of painting, and employed over 100 artists to illustrate various texts, notably the exploits of Whoamir Hamza.
The buildings and landscapes in miniature paintings often appear flattened, rather like the scenery on a theatre stage. This artistic style developed separately from western art, and in particular the Renaissance preoccupation with perspective.
Courtly ladies and gentlemen sit down to partake of a grand feast. Painted in 1712.
Mughal paintings often show a variety of events in one image, rather than a particular scene or moment in time. The eye can move across the painting and experience the passing of time, seeing the impossible - beyond mountains, behind walls and into houses. Shading was rarely used to give the illusion of depth. Instead all surfaces were brightly decorated in tiny marks and patterns, which were sometimes burnished, resulting in the painting having a jewel-like quality.
Emperors and artists
Emperor Jahangir embraced Akbar's practice of employing court artists. He even gave one craftsman, Ustad Mansur, the title Nader al-Asr ('Wonder of the Age').
This famous painting of a plane tree is by Jahangir's greatest artist, Abu'l Hasan. It attains a beautiful, natural realism, where even the fur of the squirrels is distinct.
Jahangir loved nature, and his pleasure in studying the world around him is reflected in the paintings he commissioned. Artists would faithfully reproduce birds and mammals for him, against plain backgrounds, perhaps not wishing to distract from the inherent beauty of the creatures. Mansur produced over 100 paintings of flowers during a royal visit to Kashmir, although unfortunately only three have survived.
East and west
There is some evidence that an exchange of styles between eastern and western artists did occur. Mughal court painters appear to have copied prints by European artists such as Albrecht Durer, and copied flowers from illustrations in European books. Miniatures by English artists Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver were also delivered to Jahangir.
In the reign of Shah Jahan, the plants appeared more as decorative motifs than as strict botanical portraits. As the Mughal Empire began to disintegrate in the eighteenth century, Mughal artists had to find new patrons or face the prospect of unemployment. The Europeans were arriving in numbers, and with them the opportunity to paint portraits for diplomats and birds for collectors, and to capture the many flowers and plants for the East India Company's botanists.