barber institute of fine arts
university of birmingham

MARCH 2013

Unknown Artist

Portrait of a Lady

Indian, Moghul School, 18th century

Coloured ink on paper and fabric

Purchased 1947 (No. 47.6)


This Indian woman is heavily adorned in luxurious fabric and jewellery with henna dye markings on her hands and feet. The jewellery not only emphasises her status and wealth but, more importantly, in the eighteenth century it was considered a crucial component of beauty. In fact a woman not wearing jewellery would not be considered as beautiful. The henna dye markings represent another important tradition for Indian women as the henna plant was (and still is) believed to bring love and good fortune and to protect against evil. It is also associated with special celebrations such as weddings and births.

The adornments of this woman overshadow her face, and consequently her clothes, jewellery and henna form her identity more so than her face or body. The lack of attention to the body of the woman could also suggest that this portrait was produced without a model. Portraits of Indian women were often a product of an artist’s imagination because social restrictions of the Indian harem did not allow male artists to paint women from life. As such, it is more likely that this was a portrait according to standardised conventions. The profile view was considered the best way to portray the perfect face.

Portrait miniatures like this were often produced as book illustrations, or sometimes as single works to be kept in albums. In this case, the portrait is from an album arranged for Asaf Jan (1713-1748), the Nizam-ul-mulk (or sovereign) of the central Indian state of Hyderabad, and the portrait has his seal on the reverse. It is thought that it may represent a ‘Raga’ or musical mode in Indian classical music.


Sophie Rycroft, Collections and Exhibitions Intern (September 2012-January 2013)


A free gallery talk in front of this work will be given on 8 March at 12.30pm.


All welcome.


Indian, Deccani School

Portrait of Sultan Ali Adil Shah II



Workshop of Jérôme Le Clerc (active 1676-1719)

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Learn more