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What Do Mughal Miniatures and Rembrandt Have in Common?

This is another one of my musings on the connection of all things.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Four Orientals Seated Under a Tree, a drawing in pen and brown ink with brown and grey wash, after 1656, British Museum

Rembrandt van Rijn, Four Orientals Seated Under a Tree, a drawing in pen and brown ink with brown and grey wash, after 1656, British Museum

One of the best known 17th Century Dutch Masters, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669), was fond of portraying intricate and elaborate costumes.  In this drawing of Four Orientals Seated Under a Tree, he is exploring the clothing and customs of the Far East, and using oriental paper as his medium. But why is he doing this and where did he get such detailed information about the Far East? After all, he lived two centuries before steamships and colonial expansion spurred Orientalist works by the likes of Frederick Lewis and Alma-Tadema.

Rembrandt was studying contemporary (17th-century) Mughal miniatures which were imported by the intrepid tradesmen and adventurers of the independent Dutch Republic, notably the Dutch East India Company, who established and dominated trade routes around the globe, including India.  Imagine Rembrandt’s excitement upon seeing these Mughal miniatures depict the vibrant world of the Far East, the part of the world of Abraham, David, Sarah and all the Old Testament figures with whose stories he grew up and whom he imagined countless of times when trying to conjure their image for his patrons!

The Four Orientals drawing inspired by the Mughal miniatures in turn likely inspired Rembrandt’s etching of Abraham Entertaining the Angels.  The placement of important figures on a rug around a central tray, Abraham’s robe and turban, and the clothing and facial features of the angel on the right all echo the costumes, personal appearance, and hospitality customs portrayed in the miniatures.

Abraham Entertaining the Angels, 1656, etching and drypoint, Rosenwald Collection (c) NGA

Abraham Entertaining the Angels, 1656, etching and drypoint, Rosenwald Collection (c) NGA

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