Animal Study: A Ram
Northern India (Mughal), 1625-50
Pigments on Paper, 6 1/4 x 5 5/8 in (15.9 x 14.3 cm)
Published: Ray 1986, p. 192, fig. 6; Das 1992, fig. 5
The tradition of making portraits of strange or favorite animals was initiated by the fourth Mughal emperor, Jahangir (reigned 1605-27) and was continued by both later Mughals and Rajput patrons. These two studies of a nilgai, or "blue bull" (Boselaphus tragocamelus), and a ram are from the reign of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (reigned 1628-58), the famed builder of the Taj Mahal. Although not as keen a naturalist as his father Jahangir, he was a sensitive patron of the arts and architecture, and painting continued to flourish at court, at least until his troubles with his sons in the 1650s. Of the two pictures, the nilgai may have been inspired by an earlier study from life by the master animal-painter Mansur, a favorite of Jahangir. The Ford rendering is a mirror-image of the Mansur version (see Welch et al. 1987, no. 47), but has significant variations that have been noted by Dye (in Pal, citation above). Both Dye and Beach are of the opinion that this version was painted in the 1630s. Comparing the Ford representation with that of Mansur, Dye observes that the former is treated "both in a more forceful and more decorative manner". While shading of the fur is still precise and delicate, the patches and stripes on the legs and ears have no reference to reality. Nevertheless, it remains a sensitive and attractive example of an animal study of this noble creature, which was a favorite hunting target of the Mughals.
The "calculated formality", to use Dye's expression, that characterizes that nilgai is even more apparent in the study of a ram. It is a tethered ram and not a wild animal. It is also the recipient of affection, evident from the orange make-up applied to its hooves and ankles, the strap of the necklace with golden pendants, and the tips of the wooly caps on its two humps. Otherwise, it is a handsome and robust animal of white-and-black fleece with splendidly curling horns. Once again, the representation reveals both keen observation as well as a penchant for decoration, even more so than the nilgai study. In both paintings, the background and the ground are distinguished by two washes of green. Plants enliven the depiction of the nilgai.
While the nilgai is frequently represented in Akbar-period hunting scenes, a number of similar rams or sheep appear in both Persian and Akbari narrative pictures of the sixteenth century (Gorakshakar and Nigam 1988, no. 121). Individual studies, however, occur only in Mughal paintings (see Das citation above). Das has discussed the importance of representations of an exotic subspecies known as the Jacob sheep. A spotted or piebald sheep, its name comes from its connection with Jacob of the Old Testament. While we do not know the artist responsible for the two Ford animal studies, it should be noted that such well-known masters as Govardhan, Mansur, and Pidarath, who excelled in animal pictures, were still active in the third quarter of the seventeenth century at the court of Shah Jahan.
all text and images © The Trustees of the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore