A PAINTING OF WOMEN AT THE WELL
A PAINTING OF WOMEN AT THE WELL
A PAINTING OF WOMEN AT THE WELL
A PAINTING OF WOMEN AT THE WELL
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A PAINTING OF WOMEN AT THE WELL

INDIA, PROVINCIAL MUGHAL, AWADH, ATTRIBUTED TO MIHR CHAND, CIRCA 1765-1770

Details
A PAINTING OF WOMEN AT THE WELL
INDIA, PROVINCIAL MUGHAL, AWADH, ATTRIBUTED TO MIHR CHAND, CIRCA 1765-1770
Folio 8 1⁄8 x 5 1⁄4 in. (20.6 x 13.3 cm.)
Image 7 1⁄8 x 4 1⁄8 in. (18.1 x 10.5 cm.)
Provenance
George Halla, Czechoslovakia's Vice Consul in Australia and New Zealand, 1948, by repute.
Private Collection, Sydney, by descent.

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Lot Essay

This masterful painting, which so gently captures the soft, naturalistic aesthetic of the bygone Shah Jahan period, demonstrates the masterful capabilities of the Awadhi painter Mihr Chand (active c. 1759-86). Mihr Chand was trained in the Mughal tradition at the imperial court in Delhi. Like many 18th century artists influenced by the political turmoil and dimishing Mughal state, Mihr Chand abandoned the once lavish Imperial atelier to head for the provinces and seek employment with a Nawab or European officer.
Mihr Chand landed in Faizabad, the one-time capital of Awadh where he first gained employment under Nawab Shuja' al-Dawla. Mihr Chand’s masterful work for the Nawab earned the notice of Colonel Antoine Polier (1741-95), a Swiss adventurer working for the French and British East India Company. An interested collector of Indian painting and manuscripts, the adventurer and the artist's relationship grew into a deep working connection, where Mihr Chand was not only completing original works for Polier, but also producing reproductions and refurbishing earlier Mughal, Deccani, Rajput, and even European paintings in the collection of Polier and his colleague, the French Colonel Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Gentil (1726-1799).
The breadth of visual resources in his patron’s collection furthered Mihr Chand’s thirst for knowledge of the techniques and styles of the past to incorporate into his own work. The exposure is evident in his miniatures, demonstrating a recollection of earlier workshops, particularly the period of Shah Jahan. His appreciation of these historical works caused a major stylistic revival of faded imperial taste in late 18th century Awadh, emphasizing nostalgia as a prevalent mood of the times. The scene of the present painting, women serving a male traveler at a well, was a popular subject in 17th and 18th century Mughal paintings and was undoubtably inspired by the wealth of material Mihr Chand had at his disposal.
Surviving works by Mihr Chand are all painted in a traditional fashion and under exceptional technical influence. His figures, particularly of the female form, are beautifully modelled with particularly astute attention to shadows and shading to define their naturalistic positions. His work on the female form was perhaps influenced by subjects like Titian’s reclining Venus which he reproduced in the miniature format, an example of which survives at the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin. Mihr Chand’s works are marked by a warmer, less saturated color palette and a matured approach to spatial composition. He is often credited for introducing aerial perspective into the Awadhi school, although his works demonstrate capability with a broad array of techniques for illustrating perspective. The present painting conveys spatial recession through a highly detailed foreground that blurs into a mountain landscape as the scene retreats into the distance. His revision of the Awadhi landscape, which was previously marked by an abstract, single color background, had an invaluable influence on the quality of works produced by all artists of the late 18th century provincial Mughal schools.
The present painting showcases the best of provincial Mughal ability. Similar to the Imperial Mughal examples that precede it, the scene involves a prince or nobleman stopping for a drink at the well. This example shows a trio of visitors — a nobleman, a hunter, and a sage —intermingling with the busy women who serve the men water as they load clay pots of water for themselves. The scene includes charming elements, including a naked toddler, predictably inspired by European prototypes, joyfully feeding ducks in the lower left corner. An elderly woman, modedled after classical Mughal portraits, minds the child while she spins thread.
Mihr Chand demonstrates a keen eye for detail, capturing everything from the tension in the rope as the water is collected from the well to the folds in the nobleman’s clothes as they gather at his ankles. The artist took great care to model the faces of each character, from the fine wrinkles in the elder figures, to the flawless beauty of the maidens, each idealized yet highly individualized. As was Mihr Chand’s trademark, the attention to natural topography is also astounding, capturing every groove in the ground, the knotted tree bearing small fruits, and the mountain landscape in the distance.
In this work, Mihr Chand implements many characteristics of Shah Jahan period painting (r. 1627-58). He utilizes a washed, muted palette with brownish tints, includes a subtle use of light and shadow, and contours every form with the perfect level of shading. The execution of the elderly woman’s face appears directly inspired by Shah Jahan period works, alongside an emphasis on the feather foliage and overall naturalism so admired by the emperor. The level at which the classical style was emulated in this piece could only have been achieved by the pioneering artist Mihr Chand.
The verso of this painting is inscribed in elegant nasta'liq with fourteen couplets from the Bustan of Shaykh Muslih al-din Sa'di (d.1292 AD). The blue and gold floral border on the calligraphic folio matches many of the known works attributed to Mihr Chand.
His work is documented by several dozen signed and attributed paintings, many of which in the Islamic Art Museum, Berlin, which acquired albums compiled by Antoine Polier. His works vary from genre scenes, royal portraiture, topographic paintings, and flora and fauna. The Achenbach Foundation of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco holds three pages from the Lady Coote Album painted by Mihr Chand, including Mihr Chand’s reproduction of the British artist Tilly Kettle’s (1735-1786) portrait of Nawab Shuja-ud-Daula. The British Museum holds two paintings carrying the hand of Mihr Chand. One (acc. no. 1920,0917,0.9) is a 17th century Mughal painting by Manohar that has been touched up by Mihr Chand, while the other (acc. no. 1920,0917,0.13.9) appears to be a reproduction of a portrait of the Mughal Emperor Akbar with his son Jahangir. Several paintings are also known to be collection of the British Library, including a stunningly well modeled nude portrait of a courtesan, a ragamala painting and a scenic painting of Gajendra Moksha. The Victoria and Albert Museum also holds a skilled nature scene involving a battle between a Lion and a Buffalo near a forest pool (acc. no. IS.234:2-1952). A painting of a Northern Goshawk attributed to Mihr Chand, now at the Islamic Arts Museum, Malaysia (acc. no. 2017.1.3) sold at Sotheby’s London 19 October 2016, lot 8.

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