A Balsam Plant

Artist/maker unknown, India

Geography:
Made in Deccan region, India, Asia

Date:
c. 1660-80

Medium:
Opaque watercolor and gold on paper

Dimensions:
11 7/8 x 7 1/8 inches (30.2 x 18.1 cm)

Curatorial Department:
Indian and Himalayan Art

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:
2004-149-39

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

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Label:
Paintings from the Deccan region are celebrated for their sometimes weird, but always wonderful, representations of oversized, flowering plants. By placing this balsam plant against a solid background, enlarging its scale, and isolating it in the center of the painting, the artist has created a floral portrait. Interest in floral portraiture likely derived from engraved images imported from Europe. But the Deccani artist does not render the plant precisely as it appears in nature. Instead he stiffens the stem, makes the blooms symmetrical, and aligns the clouds and tiny flowers to create an exquisite composition of perfect regularity.

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

    Flowering plants and the gardens they adorn are potent metaphors in Islamic culture. To the mystic, they represent the realization of perfection, and thus are inevitably likened to the spiritual state of grace. To the artist, they evoke notions of the splendors of paradise too, but the marvelous beauty of their forms is savored rather more indulgently. Their order and ephemerality may ultimately provoke intellectual musings, but their color and pattern never fail to satisfy a human desire for sensory pleasure. Recognizing intuitively that flowers function effectively at both these levels, artists everywhere in the Islamic world have covered all kinds of architectural surfaces, textiles, and luxury objects with floral imagery, extending the natural beauty of the garden into the furthest reaches of the man-made environment.

    In Islamic painting, flowers overlay even the most unlikely settings, such as the blood-spattered ground in scenes of battle. In most cases, they are small in size and generic in form, and are used simply to brighten large expanses of an uptilted landscape. In the foregrounds of some seventeenth-century Mughal and Deccani portraits, they are reduced to a miniaturistic scale, a device that simultaneously aggrandizes the figure and makes the ground below appear to recede dramatically into the distance; in other Deccani works, they assume outlandish proportions, rising knee-high on visionary figures who inhabit a magical world.

    Rather different in intent are Mughal and Deccani paintings of individual flowering plants, in which the features of a particular botanical specimen are recorded. This nominally scientific interest in flora was spurred by the emperor Jahangir, who, ever fascinated by the phenomena of the natural world, was so moved by the spectacle of the vale of Kashmir in the spring that he had his painter Mansur render more than a hundred examples of flowers. The artist’s few surviving paintings of this type indicate that their format is modeled after European engraved herbals, examples of which were probably available in India even before 1620.1 This format presents the flowering plants in large scale against a plain background; if a ground line exists at all, only rarely does it extend to the edge of the frame, thus isolating the flower in an abstract space.

    This striking painting of a balsam plant (Impatiens balsamina) represents a later stage in the development of the floral portrait, which continued to enjoy favor at the Mughal court, throughout the Deccan, and at the Rajasthani court of Kishangarh. The seven brilliantly colored petals issue from the central stalk in an absolutely symmetrical manner, each shell-like blossom displaying exactly the same amount of red. This regularity is not a quality found in the plant itself or even in other Indian depictions of the balsam plant, but an expression of a strong preference for formal order.2 The anonymous artist admits a hint of spatial complexity in the sawtooth leaves, several of which bend to reveal their undersides or pass over adjacent leaves, but controls their angle and length so that they form an exceedingly orderly shape around the blossoms. The strip of earth below the balsam plant is no less contrived, as an array of miniature plants sprouting at regular intervals rise just high enough from a series of interlocking mounds to break the horizon. This tidying impulse extends even to the heavens, where tightly coiled clouds creep methodically across a narrow band of orange sky.

    Although Mughal and Deccani images of flowers share many characteristics, Mughal examples tend to be more three-dimensional and naturalistic. The stylized treatment of foreground and sky in this example points to a provenance in the Deccan. John Seyller, from Intimate Worlds: Indian Painting from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection (2001), pp. 112-113.

    1. See Robert Skelton, “A Decorative Motif in Mughal Art,” in Pratapaditya Pal, ed. Aspects of Indian Art: Papers Presented in a Symposium at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, October, 1970. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1972., pp. 151–52.
    2. For an earlier and much less regular Deccani rendering of this plant, see Robert Skelton, “Indian Painting of the Mughal Period,” in B. W. Robinson et al. Islamic Painting and the Arts of the Book: The Keir Collection. Edited by B. W. Robinson. London: Faber and Faber, 1976, no. V.99, color plate 40.