Lot 6
  • 6

The Virgin Mary holding a book, attributable to Basawan, Mughal, circa 1585-90

30,000 - 40,000 GBP
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  • Brush and ink on paper heightened with gold
brush and ink heightened with gouache and gold on paper, laid down on stout paper


Stuart Cary Welch, Cambridge, Massachusetts (1928-2008)
Acquired in 1966


In the Image of Man, Hayward Gallery, London, 1982


London 1982-I, pp.162-3, no.237 (as attributed to Manohar)


In good overall condition, minor paint loss to upper right corner of drawing, slight abrasions to top left, painted fields slightly extended at edges, as viewed.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

A wide variety of Christian images and iconography entered the Mughal artistic milieu during the second half of the sixteenth century through European prints and illustrated Bibles brought to India by Jesuit missionaries and other European travellers. The imagery was enthusiastically taken up by Akbar's artists, encouraged by the emperor himself, who was fascinated by Christianity and other religions and by Christian and European works of art. Basawan was among the artists influenced by this development, and western traditions of realism, portraying character and the use of advanced perspective were soon incorporated into his style. It is in his drawings of Biblical subjects that the influence of European engravings is most clearly visible. Depictions of the Madonna reading a book, usually with the Christ Child on her lap, abound in European art of the sixteenth century, but in addition to these mention should be made of the numerous series of The Liberal Arts produced by European engravers in the sixteenth century, many of which featured female figures holding books, as well as the Puritas Regia frontispiece in Plantin's Royal Bible (the Polyglot Bible), which also shows a female figure holding a book. It was a copy of this edition of the Bible that the Jesuits presented to Emperor Akbar.

The present example is closely comparable in style to the work of Basawan. In particular, the face here closely resembles those on five drawings signed by or attributed to Basawan of circa 1590, four in the Musée Guimet, Paris and one in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (see Okada 1991, pp.10-12, figs.9-11; Okada 1992, pp.87-89, fig.85, 89, 90; Pal 1993, pp.216-7, no.54). Of these, the face in the present figure is almost identical, but in reverse, to that of the drawing in the Musée Guimet of a woman holding a vina and standing on a monster's head (Okada 1991, no.11, Okada 1992, p.89, fig.90; see also Seyller in Beach, Fischer and Goswamy 2011, vol.1, p.128, fig.9).

Basawan was one of the greatest masters of the imperial Mughal atelier. Original, technically immensely skilful, acute in observation and profound in expression, his many works show a sense of artistic confidence, individuality and talent that was supreme in its day. Amina Okada described him as "one of the greatest artists of his time and the most accomplished painter at Akbar's court. His original and eminently personal style, receptive to the pictorial lessons bequeathed by Western art and nourished by subtly assimilated Persian references, characterizes Akbari art at its apogee – eclectic, consistent, masterful." (Okada 1991a, pp.15-16).

He was greatly celebrated in his own time, and he contributed to many of the illustrated manuscripts made for Emperor Akbar, including the Cleveland Museum Tutinama, the Hamzanama, the British Library Darabnama, the Jaipur Razmnama and Ramayana, and the Victoria and Albert Museum Baburnama and Akbarnama. He also produced a number of individual portraits and group scenes, often ink drawings or works in nim-qalam, and on several occasions copying, or at least strongly referencing, European prints, of which the present work is an example. Basawan was ranked fourth after Mir Sayyd 'Ali, 'Abd al-Samad and Daswanth, by Abu'l Fazl in his A’in-i Akbari (translated by Blochmann 1873 (reprint 1989), vol.I, p.114), where he writes: "4. Basawan. In back grounding, drawing of features, distribution of colours, portrait painting, and several other branches, he is most excellent, so much so that many critics prefer him to Daswanth." For further discussions and references to Basawan, see Seyller in Beach, Fischer and Goswamy 2011, vol.1, pp.119-134; Beach 1981, pp.89-90; Okada 1991, pp.1-16; Okada 1992, pp.76-94; Welch 1961, pp.7-17.