A Young Prince Riding

Artist/maker unknown, Indian or Afghani

Made in Delhi, India, Asia
or Kabul, Afghanistan, Asia

c. 1550-1555

Opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper

Image: 8 1/8 × 4 3/4 inches (20.6 × 12.1 cm) Sheet: 12 5/8 × 9 inches (32.1 × 22.9 cm)

Curatorial Department:
South Asian Art

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
125th Anniversary Acquisition. Alvin O. Bellak Collection, 2004

Social Tags [?]

There are currently no user tags associated with this object.

[Add Your Own Tags]

Most of the characteristics of this painting-from the three-quarter profile to the delicate "floating" flowers-indicate that it was made by a painter trained in the Persian tradition. Humayun, the second Mughal ruler (reigned in India 1530-40 and 1555-56), established the imperial Mughal painting workshop when he hired two master artists from the Persian Safavid court and brought them back with him into India. Humayun is said to have invented the elaborate, plumed turban worn by the rider depicted here, and it appears only in images closely associated with him. The young rider holds a Persian book that begins, "May the world grant you success…" These lofty words-combined with the turban type, the Persian painting style, and the figure's youth-suggest that this might be a portrait of Humayun's son, Prince Akbar.

Explore the Collections

Additional information:
  • PublicationIntimate Worlds: Indian Paintings from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection

    One of the most common types of books in the Islamic world was the album. Fine individual specimens of painting and calligraphy of different periods were gathered together in such albums, usually in alternation, so that one example of each would appear on any given opening of the book. The wide outer margin of the painting shown here, for example, indicates that it occupied the left side of an opening, opposite a work of calligraphy. To maintain the desired proportions of the image to the folio, the album’s designer would often augment the central painted or written specimen with a painted extension or additional bits of writing.1 He would then set it within a series of lavish borders, the outermost being filled with ornamental scenes of animals, birds, and flowers. These were typically rendered in gold washes against a background whose color was often varied by the use of different dyes.

    The aggregate nature of albums makes them particularly susceptible to fragmentation and dispersal. To reconstruct albums—a notoriously difficult undertaking— scholars normally turn to such extraneous considerations as the general date of the paintings, the size of the folios, the style of the border decoration, and the occasional folio number. All these factors are relevant here because they clarify the original context of this rare folio, which bears an early Mughal equestrian portrait of a young prince on one side and a calligraphic aphorism on the other.

    This painting has been associated with a group of paintings known as the Fitzwilliam Album, so designated because the majority of its folios are preserved in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.2 The initial publication of most of its dispersed folios seemed to shed new light on a hitherto murky stage of Mughal painting, that is, the period from the Mughal emperor Humayun’s return from Persia in 1549 to his son Akbar’s accession in 1556. The style of the fifteen known paintings accorded well with such an early date, with many showing discrete passages modeled in the Mughal manner, and one painting purportedly depicting a specific incident of 1555 in which Prince Akbar struck down a nilgai with his sword.3 The early date of the group appeared to be corroborated further by one calligraphic specimen that provided a date of A.H. 953/A.D. 1546–47 and a provenance of Kabul, where Humayun had established his court in exile.4

    Subsequent examination of these same folios has produced a surprisingly different conclusion. Most of the paintings were discovered to be overpainted, a practice that accounts for the unusual sense of Mughal-style faces and clothing grafted onto existing Bukharan-style images.5 This discovery removes the group of paintings from the 1550s, when hints of what would develop into the Mughal style first appeared, and places them instead in the late 1560s, when the Mughal atelier was busy redoing other paintings in exactly this manner. Likewise, the precise identification of the scene of Akbar slaying a beast with a historical event of 1555 was undermined when various scholars recognized the fact that the prey that the young prince pursues in the painting is not a stout nilgai but an ordinary antelope. A systematic study of the measurements of the folios and their borders also turned up significant differences in their sizes, a feature that does not vary within a given book.6 Finally, one group of nine paintings has original folio numbers, while the six remaining paintings do not.7 The result of all this is that there is not a single Fitzwilliam Album, but three separate albums, each with some folios in the Fitzwilliam Museum.

    The detachment of this painting from a putative album of early Mughal art in no way diminishes the importance of the painting, which remains one of the very earliest works by a Mughal artist. Its most distinctive feature is surely the rider’s flamboyant golden turban, its surface tooled to catch the light and daubed with red, green, and white paint to simulate the effect of a generous studding with precious stones and pearls. Humayun himself is credited with the invention of its form: a tall, conical center rising above a squarish base. Although other representations of this turban type feature ties crossing at the base of the conical center, the plumed turban seen here appears only in images dating to Humayun’s reign or in those deliberately evoking that period. Apart from his rich headgear, the figure’s clothing is nondescript, the white sash cast over his shoulder meriting attention only for its opaque surface and scratchy arabesque decoration. But the figure’s status is confirmed by the book he holds, for it conspicuously bears a Persian inscription that alludes to his divinely ordained future rule: “May the world grant you success and the celestial sphere befriend you. May the world-creator protect and preserve you.”8 The combination of this lofty inscription, the luxurious Humayun-period turban, and a very youthful countenance leaves no doubt that this princely figure is none other than the emperor’s son and heir, Akbar.9

    In the 1550s, only three Mughal artists afford enough documentation to permit a discussion of their personal painting styles: Mir Sayyid ‘Ali, ‘Abd al-Samad, and Dust Muhammad. This painting compares most closely with the work of the first, notably the signed School Scene of c. 154010 and the ascribed Portrait of a Young Scholar of c. 1555.11 The shape of the prince’s face and rendering of the eyes and eyebrows in the equestrian portrait are particularly reminiscent of these works. The hands, clothing, and setting are considerably simpler than those found in these two highly accomplished works.

    On the reverse of this folio is a fine specimen of Nasta‘liq written by an anonymous calligrapher.12 John Seyller, from Intimate Worlds: Indian Painting from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection (2001), pp. 56-57.

    1. The bits of Persian writing above and below this image read: “I’ll give you some good advice. Listen and do not make excuses. Accept whatever the compassionate advisor tells you.
    2. Milo Cleveland Beach. Early Mughal Painting. Cambridge: Harvard University Press for the Asia Society 1987, pp. 17–49.
    3. The episode is recorded in the Akbarnama, and is published in ibid., p. 21; the corresponding image is the frontispiece and figure 8 of the same publication.
    4. Ibid., p. 48, fig. 33.
    5. The evidence for the overpainting of these paintings is presented in John Seyller, “Recycled Images: Overpainting in Early Mughal Art,” in Canby 1994, pp. 69–76.
    6. Ellen Smart has graciously shared her data and thoughts with me on this matter.
    7. The paintings that belong to this group are Fitzwilliam Museum (FM) 160-1948 (folio 9), FM 72-1948 (folio 16), FM 161-1948 (folio 28), FM 162-1948 (folio 34), FM 163-1948 (folio 35), British Museum (BM) 1948 10-9-076 (folio 37), BM 1948 10-9-053 (folio 40), BM 1948 10-9-054 (folio 41), and FM 164-1948 (folio 47). The fact that the folio numbers run as high as 47 indicates that many other folios may be extant.
    8. This inscription, together with the others discussed in n. 1 above, was translated by Wheeler Thackston.
    9. An inscription written in Devanagari in the lower margin identifies the figure as Sikandar Rümï, or Alexander the Great.
    10. Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, D.C., S1986.221 (A. S. Melikian-Chirvani, “Mir Sayyed ‘Ali: Painter of the Past and Pioneer of the Future,” in Das 1998, figs. 9–12).
    11. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, M.90.141 (ibid., fig. 1).
    12. It reads: “The Pir of Herat [Khwaja ‘Abdullah Ansari] says: ‘Make the most of your life, and know that obedience to God is a golden opportunity. Whoever makes ten good qualities [of the Prophet] his watchword has done his job in this life and the next.’” Thackston has identified the source of this passage as the Munajat of Khwaja ‘Abdullah Ansari.