The identity of a nobleman depicted in an 18th-century Indian miniature painting at the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine, was recently discovered by a college freshman and corroborated by another graduate in next spring. Previously known only as Man in a flowery coat, the stunning sartorial subject holding a scroll and writing instrument has been identified as Sayyid Muzzafar, the commander-in-chief of 17th-century Sultan Abul Hasan. The student’s discovery now links the miniature painting, held by the university museum since 1959, to other portraits by Muzzafar that hang in the British Museum in London and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
This art historical puzzle was solved by freshman Matthew Brown during a freshman writing class called Art 101 Reading Images. “Students choose a single piece from the Colby College Museum of Art and they work on it throughout the semester,” says Dr. Marta Ameri, who teaches the course. “It starts with a visual analysis and ends with a research paper where they try to find as much information as possible in order to argue the work. The thing here is that most of these pieces hadn’t been published or very well researched.
The day before the papers were due, Ameri says, Brown told her he had made a discovery about the miniature Man in a flowery coat and asked for an extension. Brown says he was looking through similarly dated Mughal paintings when he found a portrait of Sultan Abul Hasan wearing a cloak with a flower pattern that bore a striking resemblance to the Colby College painting. “From that moment of my research, I was convinced that these two paintings were related in some way. I believed it was possible that Man in a flowery coat could have come from the same region of Golconda, India. Due to the subject’s apparent literacy and high fashion, it was safe to assume he was upper class,” Brown adds.
“I started looking for people associated with Sultan Abul Hasan, and eventually I came across the Witsen album, which is a collection of 49 portraits of rulers and other upper class members of the Mughal Empire, many of whom hail from Golconda,” explains the student. The album was featured on the Rijksmuseum website, and it included a portrait of a man named Sayyid Muzaffar who was described (in Dutch) as the sultan’s commander-in-chief.
“This portrait looked a lot like Man in a flowery coat– both had nearly identical faces and both carried a scroll,” Brown explains. He corroborated his intuition by researching other portraits of Sayyid Muzaffar, including paintings in the British Museum and the National Library of France.
“There are a number of portraits of Muzaffar in larger collections, and so Brown started putting him together and suddenly we had a name for this man,” Ameri explains. “This discovery connects works from small collections like ours to a larger dialogue across art history. It also speaks to the value of the collections and exhibits of small museums and their ability to advance these dialogues.
Ameri adds, “Since then, instead of focusing entirely on grading the papers, which I usually do at this time of year, I’ve also been going through the other miniatures in our collection to see if it’s possible to identify more subjects. Brown says he wants this research adventure “to be a reminder, to myself and to others, that there is still much to be learned in art, and often information is right under our noses”.
He didn’t know how true that statement was. After our article was initially published, Yael Rice, assistant professor of art history and Asian languages and civilizations at Amherst College, contacted The arts journal point out that the name of the Man in a flowery coat was written on the board. “The Persian inscription near the subject’s head clearly identifies him as Sayyid Muzaffar. He was only anonymous to those who cannot read Persian,” Rice said. “I would also add that these types of identifying Persian inscriptions are by no means uncommon; in fact, their occurrence is more the rule than the exception, and they are the primary means by which viewers of the past have identified and recognized the earliest modern portraits produced in South Asia.”
A university spokesperson said another student, from Iran who helped organize an exhibition of Islamic and Indian art at the museum last year, was able to read part of the inscription . But she had trouble translating the writing on The man in the flowery coat“which is longer than most and thought it was partly in Urdu, so we decided to stick with the name we had,” the spokesperson said.
“After Matthew figured out his identity, Professor Ameri asked [the other student] if she could go back and read the inscription, without telling him what Matthew had come up with. She was then able to identify the name and provided a provisional translation of the rest of the text,” the spokesperson explained. “We never asked experts in medieval Persian to examine the inscriptions.”
Rice adds that “there are tons of portraits like these in small institutional collections that lack specialists with the language skills to properly identify them. These are not exceptional circumstances, alas.”
The university spokesperson says the museum “knew almost nothing about these miniatures beyond when they were given to Colby and a date assigned to them in the museum’s records, and we thought we couldn’t find out much more.” He adds that the lack of documentation was compounded by the fact that the collection of miniatures had not been studied much by anyone at the university before students became interested in it.
Brown says he “made the discovery late at night while my friends were sound asleep” and celebrated his discovery by “going back to my dorm for a good night’s rest.”
• This article has been updated to include information raised by scholars of Indian art and translation work done on the miniatures by another university student.