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Portrait Painting - Portraits of Authority

Like landscape painting, portrait painting was also very popular during the colonial period. The rich and powerful British and Indians wanted their pictures painted by popular artists. Before the colonial period in India, portraits of famous people, was done in miniature.

A Moghul Miniature Portrait

Miniature paintings are executed on a very small scale on perishable material such as paper and cloth. The Palas of Bengal were the pioneers of miniature painting in India. The art of miniature painting reached its glory during the Mughal period. The tradition of miniature paintings was carried forward by the painters of different Rajasthani schools.

  • Unlike the existing Indian tradition of painting portraits in miniature, colonial portraits were life-size images that looked lifelike and real.

  • The size of the paintings itself projected the importance of the person whose portrait is being painted.

  • This new style of portrait painting enabled the rich to displaying their lavish lifestyles, wealth and status.

As portrait painting became popular, many European portrait painters came to India in search of profitable work. One of the most famous of the visiting European painters was Johann Zoffany.

Johann Zoffany

Johann Zoffany


Johann Zoffany was a German portrait painter. He was born in 1733. He was a successful painter of portraits. He also painted pictures of stage performances. From 1783 to 1789 he worked in India.

Sir Elijah and Lady Impey by Johann Zoffany

  • Most of Johann Zoffany paintings have figures of Indian servants and the sprawling lawns of colonial mansions.

  • The Indians were shown as a submissive group of people as seen in the above painting. They are shown as serving their Indian masters.

  • The British are shown as superior and imperious. They flaunt their clothes, stand regally or sit arrogantly.

  • They seem to lead a life of luxury.

  • Indians were never at the centre of such paintings, they were painted in the back ground.

Many of the Indian nawabs, who accepted the political and cultural superiority of the British, began ordering huge life size oil portraits painted by European painters. They wanted to socialise with the British, and adopt their styles and tastes. Muhammad Ali Khan was one such Nawab.

Portrait of Muhammad Ali Khan by Tilly Kettle

  • After a war with the British in the 1770s Muhammad Ali Khan became a dependant pensioner of the East India Company.

  • He commissioned two European artists, Tilly Kettle and George Willison, to paint his portrait.

  • He gifted these paintings to the King of England and the Directors of the East India Company.

  • The Nawab had lost political power, but the portraits allowed him to look at himself as a royal figure.

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