At Sotheby’s ‘Old Masters Evening Auction’, to be held in London later today, everyone is waiting eagerly to see the Portrait of a Mughal Lady (1787) go under the hammer. The value of this 18th century portrait by Francesco Renaldi has already increased by 30,000 times in just over 50 years. Its current estimated price is £300,000-£500,000 (upto ₹5.25 crore). The painting has come up for auction for the second time—it was last shown in 1969 when it was acquired by a collector for £1,600 ( ₹1.68 lakh today).
According to a Sotheby’s spokesperson, this is the second time that the painting will be exhibited for public viewing, the first time was in 1797, over 200 years ago, at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. The work is vital in giving a glimpse of Indian aristocracy from over hundreds of years ago. It is equally important in understanding how artists from the West were documenting, through their works of art, all the sights and sounds of the country while also introducing a select section of Indian aristocracy to the genre of portraiture.
Over time, men from royal Indian families became enthusiastic models for several British artists. However, it was interesting to see how certain aristocratic women broke taboos to sit for painters as well, bedecked in all their finery. It’s no wonder then that many of these paintings continue to intrigue art historians.
Portrait of a Mughal Lady stands out for the agency of the female subject within aristocratic realms. The sitter’s confident gaze is directed at the viewer—intriguing, and mysterious but full of self-assurance. The unidentified model is supposedly the ‘bibi’ or the mistress of a ‘nobab’.
The painting provides not just the visual syntax of how adept the British artists were in the academic style of painting but also gives us a richly layered historical context of the politics and culture of those times. Unfortunately, in the pre-independence time, girls (many of them minors) ended up as mistresses of British officers. At times, the nobility secured such alliances in a clear exchange for protection and property rights even if there wasn’t a legitimate marital allegiance in place.
Unfortunately, nothing is known about the identity of the ‘bibi’ in this painting other than that she is, in all probability, also the subject of Renaldi’s other famous oil painting, Muslim Lady Reclining also known by its other title, An Indian Girl with a Hookah (1789). It is in the collection of the Yale Centre for British Art, Connecticut. While William Dalrymple’s White Mughals focuses on a true love story between British officer James Achilles Kirkpatrick and Khair-un-Nissa Begum, thus allowing the ‘bibi’ to reclaim her status, it is very rare for these “nameless yet faithful companions” (as mentioned in art historian Ruchika Sharma’s book Concubinage, Race and Law in Early Colonial Bengal) to find their identity.
That’s why, the Sotheby’s auction of this particular painting – there are 27 lots in total – is so significant. The statement jewellery pieces such as the maangtika (headpiece), nath (nosering), armlets, paayals, and toe rings worn by this unidentified ‘bibi’ are all symbolic of the luxury, wealth, and status that she enjoys. “The painting,” as Nikita Binani, head of sales, jewellery department, Sotheby’s, describes, “is a statement of power.”
According to Edoardo Roberti, head of department, Old Master Paintings, Sotheby’s, the respect accorded to the sitter by Renaldi is noteworthy. In his view, the focus is clearly on this “serene, calm, but clearly, a very intelligent girl staring directly at us”. He further notes: “It is a quiet depiction of the sitter... We don’t see mangroves or deserts…” Most of all, the painter, other than inscribing that the location is Calcutta (now, Kolkata), doesn’t give any hint of it being set in the city; an interesting way to show the shared struggles of women across the globe thus making this painting timeless.
The painting is also important to understand the artistic abilities of Renaldi who, during his stay in India for a decade (1786-96) became one of the most important portrait painters of the late 18th century. A trained artist, Renaldi was an English-born painter of Italian parentage who applied to the East India Company for permission to go to Bengal as a portrait painter. Arriving in Calcutta, he travelled to places such as Dacca and Lucknow in the hope of securing fresh patronage.
For the three years that he was in Calcutta (1786-89), he made some of the best portraits, including Muslim Lady Reclining. Unfortunately, only five of his works from his days in India have been traced but they all add up to showcase his calibre as an important artist. The painting, for instance, can be seen for the sheer artistic skill of Renaldi—the folds of the organza dupatta with the border in gold; the design motifs on the green pyjamas; the detailing of the jewellery, reminiscent of the sorts made in Murshidabad, and more.
Ironically, during his lifetime Renaldi didn’t enjoy much success. However, over time, his works have gained currency for the sheer artistic skill and the rich context of Mughal history.
Abhilasha Ojha is a Delhi-based art and culture writer.