Acquired in 1926 and 1927, the paintings are part of “Princely Pursuits: Indian Miniature Painting,” an exhibit that also includes a seventh, more recent miniature acquisition, landscape photographs by Samuel Bourne, Indian jewelry from a private collection, and Indian sculptures belonging to the museum.
On view through Nov. 30 in the museum's Hitchcock Gallery, “Princely Pursuits” came about when Julie Mellby, curator of the museum's substantial holdings of works on paper, made a grand discovery while perusing the collection in the graphic arts section.
Because works on paper are stored away from the damaging effects of light, most are rarely seen by the public and are accessible only to scholars, except when they are brought out for exhibitions such as this one. But Mellby gets to peer into the boxes that house them as part of her work.
After listening to a lecture by the museum's Carolyn Putney, associate curator of Asian art, Mellby went on a hunt, curious to know if the museum had any Indian miniature paintings.
Upon learning of Mellby's discovery, Putney said, “It was like finding treasure because I had never known we owned them. So we decided we should let the public see these wonderful things since they had been hidden away since the 1920s when they were given to the museum.”
In honor of bringing the collection out, Putney and Mellby went to New York last year to purchase an additional piece, “Scenes from the Childhood of Krishna,” attributed to the artist Manohar, who was active between 1640 and 1660.
The image, which was reproduced for the exhibition poster and catalogue cover, shows the Hindu god Krishna as a little boy, as a young man, and playing the flute for a group of milkmaids, forest animals, and fish.
Putney said the painting, which has been hung over the fireplace in the Hitchcock Gallery for the exhibition, differs from the others in the show in that it is painted in the native Indian style, which is more abstract, cosmic, and timeless than the other pieces, which were done under the Mughal rulers.
The Mughals were an Islamic dynasty that came to India in the 16th century, bringing with them their love of painting. Works commissioned by them, Putney said, tended to be portraits or scenes from history or literature and full of precise detail.
Two of the more important works in the Toledo museum's miniature collection come from a 16th-century manuscript called the Razmnama, the Mughal-commissioned Persian translation of the Hindu Mahabharata, an epic Indian tale of two families who struggle for power.
One is a combat scene and the other depicts a ruler on his throne receiving news of a battle victory.
The other paintings in the exhibition, all from the 18th or 19th centuries, portray a prince with a court musician playing the lute, a hermit beside a stream, three women on a terrace, and a princess with her cat.
Each is done on paper that would have been coated with a kind of gesso before the artist made a preliminary drawing and then applied watercolor or pigment with brushes made from animal fur. Sometimes, Putney said, only a single hair would be used as a brush. “They're done with that fine, delicate detail seen in medieval manuscripts in the West.”
So that visitors to the exhibition can better examine the fine points of the paintings, the museum has placed several magnifying glasses in pockets alongside the works of art.
Although the paintings, some of which are as small as four-by-seven inches, have been framed for the exhibition, they were not meant to be hung on a wall and would have been kept in albums, Putney said.
Rarely seen today as part of complete, bound albums, the paintings were often done to go with poetry, a narrative, or a story about some great religious event or war, Mellby added.
Some would have been given as gifts and others used for educational or genealogical purposes.
Four of the miniatures were acquired by the museum's second director, George Stevens, who was especially interested in works on paper. When Stevens died about four months after obtaining the pieces from Maggs Brothers of London, the book and manuscript dealer donated two additional leaves in his memory.
Mellby finds it remarkable that Stevens had the foresight to collect Indian miniatures when he did. “He was doing so many things at that time yet he knew to go out and look for these things. Our museum in particular has a wealth of book and manuscript material, which many other museums were not paying attention to. Even now, we are one of the few museums in the country that has a major collection of books and manuscripts.”
For the exhibition, the miniatures are being shown with a set of photographs of India's people and landscapes. Eight of the photos were taken by Bourne who went to India in 1863 to photograph the country and sell his pictures to the British public. He eventually established a studio in Calcutta, Bourne & Shepherd, that remains in operation today.
“You can see in his photographs some of the same kinds of architecture and people you see in the paintings,” Putney said. “It shows the continuity of Indian art, this incredible longevity it has.”
Providing additional context for the exhibition will be three Indian bronze sculptures and a manuscript of Buddhist scripture from the museum's collection and four pieces of Indian jewelry, including a Mughal pendant, from the private collection of Mr. and Mrs. Gary Hansen of St. Louis.
Putney said Toledo's Indian, Hindu, and Muslim communities are collaborating with the museum on the show by helping to present several activities, including “Indian Artists of Toledo,” an exhibition of works by members of the local Indian communities from Sept. 5-29 in the Community Gallery. Presentations of music, storytelling, and henna painting are planned for the exhibition opening on Sept. 5.
Other events being held in conjunction with “Princely Pursuits” include a lecture by Pakistani-American artist Shahzia Sikander at 2 p.m. Oct. 12 in the museum's Little Theater. Sikander will speak on “The Context of Miniature Painting in Installations and Digital Works.”
“Princely Pursuits: Indian Miniature Painting” can be viewed during regular museum hours, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free.
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