In October 1618, one of the attendants of the Mughal emperor Jahangir fell gravely ill. The man, an opium addict named Inayat Khan, became so emaciated that the Emperor was astonished and ordered his painters to make his portrait. Next day, the courtier died.
The remarkable results of Jahangir’s curiosity -- a vivid drawing and painting of rapidly ebbing life -- are included in an exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery, “The Indian Portrait 1560-1860,” which runs through June 20.
This compresses much beauty into a small space since most of the works are miniatures. Only one is not tiny, the largest of all Mughal portraits, a life-sized image of Jahangir himself (1569-1627), a globe in his hand and seated on a gilded chair.
It is comparable with contemporaneous images of European monarchs -- which was probably what Jahangir wanted since Mughal portraiture seems to be an early product of cultural globalization.
The works on display fuse the exquisite patterning and color of Persian miniatures with the realistic portraiture of European Renaissance art (brought to India by missionaries and diplomats). Still, the results are sometimes very unlike royal portraiture in Italy or Britain. It’s hard to imagine George I (let alone Victoria) being depicted, like the early 18th- century Emperor Muhammad Shah, in explicitly detailed sexual intercourse. He still looks solemnly regal, though.
An artist who created brilliantly realistic portraits was the short-lived Danish master Christen Kobke (1810-48), whose work is on show at London’s National Gallery through June 13.
Some of Kobke’s pictures are so close to the effects of photography, which was invented during his lifetime, that you wonder whether he was using a quasi-photographic device such as a camera obscura. There’s no evidence he was, yet pictures such as Kobke’s portrait of his friend, the landscape painter Frederik Sodring (1832), are close to the effects of later photographic portraiture.
Even better -- and equally full of the sense of real light and everyday life -- are Kobke’s landscapes, such as “View Outside the North Gate of the Citadel” (1834). It’s almost a snapshot: a casual-seeming corner of reality, with a few boys fishing in the bright sun that throws long, utterly convincing shadows. At the same time, it’s composed with immense care; not really casual at all.
Like a lot of the best 19th-century painting from the Nordic lands -- his fellow Dane Vilhelm Hammershoi is another example -- there is often a slight frisson of strangeness about Kobke’s work, as if time has been frozen. He was a wonderful painter at his best, and this is a delightful exhibition.
An artist who definitely did use the camera obscura was Thomas Sandby, whose brother Paul Sandby (1731-1809) is the subject of an exhibition at the Royal Academy through until June 13. This is full of enjoyable depictions of 18th-century British life, though not of really outstanding art.
Both the Sandbys were topographical painters and also map- makers. Several works by the older brother Thomas are included, among them a sketch of Windsor (circa 1760) noted as “drawn in a camera.” Presumably he used a portable model, like an old- style photographer’s apparatus, though without film. Instead, users traced around the image.
Probably Paul -- who is credited as grandfather of the British watercolor tradition -- used a camera obscura on occasion too. Despite or maybe because of that, his landscapes are just a shade dull. The most enjoyable ingredients of the exhibition are Paul Sandby’s vigorous satires and social commentaries. These are visibly influenced by William Hogarth - -which didn’t stop Sandby attacking Hogarth himself, viciously and obscenely, in a series of prints.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer on the story: Martin Gayford in London at firstname.lastname@example.org.