The Changing Face of Nepal: A Progression in Portraiture

Ahmanson Building, Level 4
July 23, 2011–May 6, 2012

Portraiture in Nepal developed through successive modes of expression that paralleled the stylistic evolution occurring in other regions of northern South Asia. The earliest surviving Nepalese manuscript illustrations, from the late first millennium, depict sacred and secular figures as idealized, typological, or symbolic rather than realistic or individualistic. The subject is identified by the cultural setting or religious iconography rather than by specific facial features.

With the formation of the Indo-Islamic Mughal dynasty in 1526 came the desire by the great Mughal emperors in the late sixteenth and seventeenth century to immortalize their reigns in the manner of earlier Iranian traditions of depicting life at court. This development, along with the introduction and influence of European styles of realistic portraiture, encouraged artists and patrons in Nepal to emulate their Indian counterparts by developing their own individualistic portrayals of male royalty, nobles, and merchants. Images of female royalty and aristocrats remained confined to idealized types, because of the social restrictions on the public appearance of women.

After the advent of photography and the rapid founding of various South Asian photographic societies in the mid-nineteenth century, Nepalese artists adopted the curtain swags, tables, and chairs used as backdrops and props in European photographic and earlier painted portraits. These imparted an up-to-date international appearance to Nepalese portraiture. Regardless of the date of execution, painted jewelry forms and clothing styles reflect the fashion of the era and prevailing royal court.

Image: King Girvan Yuddhavikram Shah (1797-1816), Nepal, circa 1815, opaque watercolor and gold on paper, Indian Art Special Purpose Fund, M.76.129.