Description & Technical information

This delicate reverse-glass painting depicts a princess wearing a chaghtai cap, a flat-topped headdress worn in the eastern Mughal Empire. She is likely an archetype of a beautiful woman, rather than a portrait of a real person. Though she wears Indian clothes and is pictured holding a rose in a clear allusion to Mughal royal portraiture, her luminous pale skin and small almond eyes reveal that she was painted by a Chinese artist. 

Reverse-glass painting originated as a folk art in Early Modern Europe. The technique was probably brought to China by Jesuit missionaries as early as the 1720s.1 Foremost amongst them was the Italian Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), who had worked as a muralist in Italy and Portugal before his appointment as court painter by Emperor Qianglong.2 Within a few decades, Chinese artists were producing reverse glass paintings for both European and Indian markets.3 Initially, the paintings were produced in the Canton workshops and imported into India. However, Chinese reverse glass painters were soon appointed to the courts of princely states such as Satara, Kutch, and Mysore.4

Painting on the reverse side of flat glass requires a skilled artist. The final details must be applied first, then the middle layers, then the background, that is to say, the reverse order from that of an oil painting. The application of an outline, usually with tempera, was a crucial step as alterations could not be made later.5 The finished result would be very delicate, due to both the fragility of the glass and the tendency for the many layers of paint to flake off. 

The composition of the painting, with the woman in three quarter profile and holding a rose, makes reference to Deccani royal portraiture, such as the paintings of Shah Suleiman I of Persia and Shah ‘Abbas II in the British Museum (accession nos 1974,0617,0.4.1 and 1974,0617,0.4.2). Deccani artists, particularly of Bijapur, frequently painted their subjects as if captured in a window.6 Fittingly for a painting behind glass, the princess is depicted looking out from a terraced window, bearing a close resemblance to a portrait of Nawab Nasir ud-Daulah in the collection of the British Museum (accession no. 1955,1008,0.23).

The clothing and headdress worn by the princess is very similar to that seen in the oval portrait of a woman in a chaghtai hat in the Cleveland Museum of Art (accession no. 1920.1967). Both women wear a feather in their golden flat-topped hats, which are ornamented with a green swift, flowers, precious stones, and pearls. The hats are fastened under their chins with a string of pearls. Their gowns, embroidered with flowers around the hemline, drape to reveal rows of necklaces. Rather than holding a rose, the woman in the oval portrait holds a small jade cup, for which the Mughals were famous. 

n.b. accession nos are clickable links

1 Audric, Thierry. Chinese reverse glass painting 1720-1820: An artistic meeting between China and the West. Berlin: Peter Lang, 2020. Pp. 11, 26-27.
2 Dallapiccola, Anna L. Reverse Glass Painting in India. New Delhi: Niyogi, 2017. Pp. 12-13.
3 Ibid. p. 13. 
4 Thampi, Madhavi. ‘Sino-Indian Cultural Diffusion through Trade in the Nineteenth Century’, in Anne Cheng and Sanchit Kumar (eds.) India-China: Intersecting Universalities. Paris: Collège de France, 2020. P. 86.
5 Eswarin, Rudy (ed. and trans.). Reverse Paintings on Glass: The Ryser Collection. New York: The Corning Museum of Glass, 1992. P. 35.
6 Zebrowski, Mark. Deccani Painting. London: Philip Wilson, 1983. P. 140.