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A Prince Restrains a Rampaging Elephant

Artist/maker unknown, Indian

Made in Kota, Rajasthan, India, Asia

c. 1780

Opaque watercolor, gold, and silver-colored paint on paper

Image: 11 1/4 × 16 13/16 inches (28.6 × 42.7 cm) Sheet: 11 7/8 × 17 1/2 inches (30.2 × 44.5 cm)

Curatorial Department:
South Asian Art

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

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

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From early in Indian history, elephant training was considered a science and entire books were written on the subject. Elephant combats of various sorts were a popular sport among Indian rulers. Elephants, however, have a tendency to become enraged if hurt, startled, or during breeding times and this elephant has clearly run amok. Nothing deters him: not the pointed goad wielded by his princely rider, nor the whirling firecrackers of his keepers, nor the whip of a rider whose black horse shies from the enraged beast.

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

    A skittery elephant is bounding across an empty field, harried by a posse of human enforcers. Neither the pointed goad (ankush) of his master, nor the pikes and whirling firecrackers of his handlers (sat’maris), nor the whip of the approaching horseman has any power over him. With barely a nod, the elephant rushes onward.

    Paintings of elephants were a staple of seventeenth-century Kota art, when the greatest works in this genre, unrivaled in their energy of line and sense of mass in motion, were first produced (see Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2004-149-61). But the heroic age at Kota did not survive the middle years of the eighteenth century, and by the time this charming painting was made, court painting had entered a period of relative decline. Rather than invent new models, painters revised or adapted existing models. The results were quite attractive, as earlier product was usually repackaged in an elegant, fin-de-siècle box. But as the obsession with style for style’s sake gained strength, painting lost touch with actual experience.

    This fine picture retains something of the power and immediacy of its now-lost seventeenth- or early eighteenth-century Kota model. But its intensity is only surface deep--an effect of line, shape, and decorative pattern. As in earlier Kota paintings, the elephant has been carefully modeled. But its body lacks believable structure, and its movement is not natural or convincing. The extended forward leg has the shape of an elegant object, not the outline of an elephant in flight. The human figures have virtues and deficiencies of the same kind. Their bodies compose a syncopated counterpoint at the edge of the picture, but their limbs are so rubbery and disjointed that the figures appear to swim rather than run in space. In the hands of a fine painter, willful distortions like these can result in the delightful configurations of pattern and line that a more painstaking delineation of form will rarely achieve.

    The figure wearing royal dress is perhaps Maharao Umed Singh I (reigned 1771 - 1819) of Kota,1 as Kota paintings of his period have the same enamel-like intensity of color and the same spider’s-web evenness of surface and line. Another Kota (or possibly Bundi) painting of this date makes use of a slightly different variant of the same composition.2 Terence McInerney, from Intimate Worlds: Indian Painting from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection (2001), pp. 168-169.

    1. For other portraits of Umed Singh I at approximately the same age, see Stuart Cary Welch, ed. Gods, Kings, and Tigers: The Art of Kotah. Exh. cat. Munich: Prestel, 1997, pp. 164-70, nos. 45, 46; pp. 172-79, nos. 48-51; and Joachim K. Bautze, “A Second Set of Equestrian Portraits Painted During the Reign of Maharao Umed Singh of Kota,” in Indian Painting: Essays in Honour of Karl Khandalavala, ed. B. N. Goswamy with Usha Bhatia (New Delhi: Lalit Kala Akademi, 1995), p. 40, figs. 4, 5; p. 44, fig. 9.
    2. Now in a private collection; see Rosa Maria Cimino. Life at Court in Rajasthan: Indian Miniatures from the Seventeenth to the Nineteenth Century. Exh. cat. Florence: Mario Luca Giusti, 1985, p. 90, no. 89.