Rembrandt’s Night Watch includes portraits of 18 people. But the Mysore procession painting in the first room of the exhibition introduces us to over 1,250 individuals, each with a particular look and dress. How could a single artist complete such a work?
We know that this style of painting, recording specific events for posterity, often called “company painting” (for the British East India Company), was most often done on commission. We don’t know exactly when the Mysore painting was completed, although we have a fairly good idea of the period of the procession it represents (mid-1800s) because of the identifiable characters it depicts.
What we do know is that it wasn’t painted by one person. The styles of painting in various parts of the 20-foot length of the entire piece indicate several hands at work. The fluid beauty of the painting at the places where the Maharaja and the British resident are depicted indicate the hand of the master. The smaller scale and more rigid handling of the figures later on in the procession clearly show the work of a student, while there seem to be other places where the skill level falls in between. This painting was made in a workshop or atelier, with a chief artist and his assistants at work, much like one can still see in India today. According to specialists in European painting, Rembrandt’s Night Watch might have been done the same way.
Dr Stephen Inglis is the adjunct curator of the Maharaja exhibition and curator emeritus at the Canadian Museum of Civilization.