During the reign of Jahangir (1605-1627), one of the great Mughal emperors of India, the art of that land rose to a peak of decorative quality. Jahangir kept his court painters busy filling albums with scenes recording the story of his rule. Occasionally, since he had the genuine sportsman's love of nature, a study of an animal or bird appeared. A contemporary account of his interests, written by an Elizabethan Englishman visiting his court, says "he spends his afternoons watching elephant fights and other sports." The four paintings on these pages are illuminations from imperial album pages now in the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Done in opaque color and gold on burnished paper they show the delicacy and affection with which the artists and their master regarded the colorful birds of their Asian world. Modern ornithologists question the pureness of species of the subjects, and it seems that often the painter's imagination overpowered his sense of authenticity, but for sheer beauty they are hardly equalled.
This pheasantlike bird, from a page in an imperial album belonging to Emperor Jahangir of India, was painted by a royal court slave named Muhammad.
Jewel tones of color and the grace of the bird sitting on a flowering bough are characteristic of the Mughal painting. The artist titled this "The Bee-Eater."
The spotted forktail, pictured here, is still found in Asia. A kind of thrush, he delighted the emperor with his song and flight. Borders of these paintings are laced with Persian verses.
October 11, 1954
The Griffon vulture was as familiar a sight to the Mughals as he is now. Both birds on this page were painted by Ustad Mansur. He was a slave at the court of Jahangir, according to the custom of the times, but was honored as an artist.