To coincide with Ramadan, this week’s choice of picture is Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun’s portrait of Mohammad Dervish Khan – a startlingly impressive full-length portrait of an ambassador sent to Paris on urgent business by the fiercely independent Islamic ruler Tippu Sultan, last Moghul emperor of Southern India.
Painted in 1787, it was publicly exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1789 but subsequently confiscated, along with many other works of art, by the first revolutionary government of France. Vigee-Lebrun, a painter much favoured by Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, did not hang around to find out what had become of her picture, escaping from the threat of the guillotine into the safety of exile. She would not return to France for more than a decade. The painting was eventually reclaimed by her husband but then disappeared for more than 200 years. Recently unearthed in a private collection in France, it is currently on display in the V&A’s thoroughly engrossing treasure trove of an exhibition, “Encounters: The Meeting of Asia and Europe 1500-1800”.
Portraits of 18-th century Muslims painted from the life are unusual, because of traditional Islamic religious objections to the depiction of human figures in art. Mohammad Dervish Khan was reluctant to sit for his portrait, but diplomatic pressures were brought to bear on him. Given the importance of his mission, the aim of which was to enlist French support in Tippu Sultan’s attempts to expel the British from India, he reluctantly agreed to be painted.
In her memoirs, the persistent and irrepressible Madame Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun gave a long and entertainingly circumstantial account of how she came to create the painting. She first encountered Mohammed Dervish Khan with his father – theirs was a two-man embassy – at the Opera, where she was struck by their magnificent clothes, “copper complexions” and “splendid features”. She conceived the idea of painting their portrait, but this turned out to be less straightforward than she had imagined.
“Having conveyed my wishes through their interpreter, I learned that they would never consent to having their portraits painted unless the request came from the King himself. Having obtained this favour from His Majesty, I repaired to the place where they were staying since this was their wish, along with a large quantity of canvas and paint. When I arrived at their apartment, one of them brought in some rose water and sprinkled it on my hands; then the larger of the two, whose name was Davich Khan, sat for me. I painted him standing, his hand on his dagger. I painted everything, his dress, his hands, exactly as they were, such was his accommodating nature. I let the painting dry in another room and started drawing the old ambassador who sat with his son beside him. The father had a particularly splendid head. They were both dressed in gowns of white muslin, embroidered with gold flowers; these robes, a kind of tunic with large sleeves folded back at the cuff, were fastened at the waist with richly decorated belts. Except for the hems of their costumes and the background, I completely finished this painting at their home.”
A little later, she received an invitation for her and her friend Madame Bonneuil to dine with the ambassadors, an experience which she found both uncomfortable and disconcerting.
“When we walked into the dining room we were rather taken aback to see that the dinner was served on the floor. We obviously felt obliged to follow their custom and found ourselves almost lying around the table. They served us with their hands, taking the food from various dishes, one of which contained a fricassee made from sheep's feet, served in a spicy white sauce, while another was a sort of stew. I’m sorry to say that we had a miserable time…”
In painting her portrait of Mohammed Darvish Khan, she responded more positively to what plainly struck her as the exotic otherworldliness of this envoy from far-off India. In his flowing white robes, he dominates the canvas, seeming almost to burst from its confines, such is his sheer bulk and the forcefulness of his personality. Holding his “dagger” – in reality a great curved scimitar – at an angle that allows the viewer to appreciate its finely worked handle and the filigree patterns incised into its razor-sharp blade, he towers above the distant treeline of a somewhat cursorily handled landscape. Staring calmly but thoughtfully into space, he rises into the purple dawn sky like a colossus.
In an intriguing postscript to the story of the picture, Vigee-Lebrun recounted her difficulties in reclaiming it from the sitter. “When the portrait of Darvish Khan was dry, I asked him to bring it for me to see, but he had hidden it behind his bed and did not want to give it to me, saying that the portrait needed a soul... It was not possible to reclaim my painting without the use of subterfuge. When the ambassador realised that it had gone, he sent for his valet, intending to kill him. The interpreter had a very difficult task persuading him that killing one’s valet was just not done in Paris.”
It is difficult to know exactly what to make of this. Perhaps, given the evident splendour of Vigee-Lebrun’s tour-de-force of a portrait, the ambassador’s vanity got the better of his piety and he decided that he would like to keep it for himself. But given his oblique and slightly mysterious remark about the portrait needing a soul, it seems equally possible that he still harboured religious doubts about having allowed the work to be painted. Did he plan to destroy it? Or did he feel that it was harmless as long as it remained in his possession – so that he himself, so to speak, could supply it with a soul? Darvish Khan himself left no account of.
Bonus: Элизабет Луиза Виже ле Брён - портреты русской аристократии - http://hojja-nusreddin.livejournal.com/310770.html
The original posting was made at http://hojja-nusreddin.dreamwidth.org/106835.html