Indian Miniature Painting: The Mughals and Beyond

By: Dara Vandor

Waddington’s is pleased to offer a selection of early modern Indian paintings, ranging from the Mughal period into the 19thcentury in our August Asian Art auction.

At its peak, the Mughal empire (1526-1757 AD) was the richest and most powerful Islamic dynasty that ever existed. Central to their imperial identity was a focus on the arts, with a strong interest in miniature painting. Their patronage and resulting aesthetic has defined the genre, as well as having a lasting impact on early modern Indian painting, rippling out across the subcontinent and even into the contemporary era.

Lot 198 – Mughal School, A Drawing of a Camel with Trainer, 17th Century or Later Pencil on paper. Overall 6.1 x 8.8 in — 15.6 x 22.3 cm Estimate $300-$500


Indian miniature painting found its roots in the Buddhist tradition of palm leaf manuscripts, beginning around the ninth century AD. Quite literally made from cut and cured leaves, these manuscripts were extremely fragile and susceptible to mold, insects and rot. Paper was introduced to the Indian subcontinent in the 12th century, allowing artists to expand the scope of their work beyond the confines of the narrow palm leaf.

Many of the pigments used in Indian painting came from minerals like copper and cinnabar, as well as plant and insect-derived inks. The punchy yellow shade often used was derived from the urine of cows that were specifically fed mango leaves.


While Indian painting continued to grow over the ensuing years, it was during the Mughal Empire that it truly flourished. Among the most dominant regimes in Asia, the empire was founded by Babur, a descendent of Genghis Khan. An uprising in 1540 forced Babur’s son Humāyūn to flee to the Persian Safavid court in Qazvin in search of military aid. It was there that he first encountered Persian painting, which made a deep impression on him. Humāyūn was so captivated by the Islamic style that he hired two court painters, Mir Sayyid Ali and Abdus Samad, to return with him to India once peace was secured. The artists would remain in the Mughal court until their respective deaths, devoting their lives to establishing an Imperial painting studio housing over 100 craftsmen.

At its peak, the Mughal Empire would stretch from modern-day India into Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, overseeing some 100 million subjects. An economic and military powerhouse, the Mughals also dominated in the aesthetic realm. Writing for the Guardian, William Dalrymple explains that “perhaps more than any other Islamic dynasty, [the Mughals] made their love of the arts, their aesthetic principles, a central part of their identity as rulers.”

Lot 195 – Rajasthan School, Two Princesses on Horses, 18th/19th Century. Gouache, heightened with gold on paper. 7.8 x 7.6 in — 19.7 x 19.2 cm.  Estimate $300-$500

Art, architecture and landscape design were all brought to the fore, producing era-defining masterpieces including the Taj Mahal and Shalimar Gardens in Lahore. The Mughal aesthetic prioritized plant life and the observance of the natural world, which is reflected in the lush greenery and floral themes often found in paintings from that period. Refinement and pleasure—both courtly and aesthetic—were also central concerns, creating an empire-wide interest in patronage of the arts and an explosion in artistic output as a result.

Mughal miniatures were often made to illustrate books, including Hindu epics and Persian texts. Many of these paintings are no bigger than a few inches square. So detailed are these paintings that several artists typically collaborated on a single painting. Workshops were divided between artisans who drew outlines and those who applied colour.

Subjects of were widely varied, but centred around recording the desires, diversions, religious observances and courtly pageantry of the Indian elite. Mughal miniatures emphasized bright colours, a high degree of detail, and technical precision above all. Writing for Artsy, Surya Tubach notes that “Mughal miniatures are a blend of the bold, vivid colors favored by Indian painters; the fine, delicate lines preferred by Persian painters; and a European influence from artists like Albrecht Dürer, brought to India by Jesuit missionaries. Just like the empire they came from, Mughal miniatures drew from India, Persia, and Europe to create something entirely new.”

Indeed, Christianity’s effects can be felt in some paintings, which feature Western-inflected techniques including chiaroscuro and shading, as well as cherubs and other Christian motifs. Images of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and other saints were incorporated both in miniature form, as well as around the Mughal palaces.

The creative zenith of the Mughal empire occurred during the reign of Humāyūn’s son Akbar, who ruled from 1556 to 1605. His policies promoted a peaceful period, allowing the arts to flourish. Some historians believe that Akbar was illiterate, fueling his interest in the visual arts. Tubach explains that “it was only through the emphasis and funding provided by Humāyūn and his descendants that court painting in the form of Mughal miniatures came to be seen as the highest form of sophistication and elegance.”

Lot 192 – An Indian Miniature Painting of a Courtly Scene with a European Dandy, 19th Century or Earlier.
Opaque watercolour on paper, pasted on cardboard; image 4.3 x 8 in (11 x 20.4 cm) with border 9.6 x 12.6 in (24.5 x 32 cm). Estimate $400-$600


By the 18th century, the Mughal empire began collapsing, around the same time the British began nibbling at the edges of the subcontinent. Unable to hold the vast empire together, provinces began splintering off from the Mughal reign. The imperial capital of Delhi was sacked by Persian and Afghan invaders, crippling what was left of the empire.

After the decline of the Mughal empire, artistic patronage shifted outwards from the Imperial court to provincial governors, notably in the Rajasthan and Pahari kingdoms. Stronger geographical styles emerged, and were deeply tied to Indian literature as well as to a more documentary function, chronicling social and cultural life of the period. The Academy of Fine Arts and Literature in New Delhi explains that “as the Renaissance masters turned to the Bible, Indian painters turned to our epics, and saw as their task bringing these stories into visual reality for those who may not be able to read.”

After parts of the country came under the control of the British East India Company, some of the patronage for the arts came under colonial rule. Court artists began experimenting with western materials and styles, assimilating elements they liked into Mughal-style artworks. In an effort to emulate the refinement of the Indian elite, British patrons would have themselves and their families painted in the local style and costume, fusing touchpoints from East and West. Indian patrons similarly picked up on this new “Company style” or “Company School,” amalgamating European influences such as costume into their own portraits.


Waddington’s is pleased to offer a selection of early modern Indian paintings, ranging from the Mughal period into the 19thcentury, lots 192198 in our August Asian Art auction. The auction will be offered online from August 21-26, 2021.

We invite you to browse the full gallery.

Offering the final pieces from the collection of H.H. Pao, this auction features notable early Chinese ceramics including Neolithic and Warring States pottery jars, Han dynasty green glazed vessels, and classical Tang and Song dynasty ceramics. Jade carvings range from as early as the 5th century into the Ming/Qing dynasties, Republican period and later 20th century. Covering all categories of Asian works of art, this auction offers curated selections of Chinese porcelain, Indian miniature paintings, Japanese woodblock prints, and Chinese furniture for collectors of all levels.

Please note that all transactions are in Canadian Dollars (CAD) and all times posted are ET.

Contact us for in-person previews, condition reports, additional photos or any further information. Whether you are based in Canada or abroad, we are here to serve you by telephone, email or secure video link.

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