The sartorial figure had resided in anonymity in the collection of the Colby College Museum of Art since it was given to the museum by Ambrose Cramer in 1959, and in private collections for decades before that. Last week, Matthew Brown ’24 decided to use the Internet to peel back the mask of time.
Brown selected the watercolor portrait The Man in the Flowered Coat as his focus for the course Reading Images taught by Assistant Professor of Art Marta Ameri. In this course, students select one work of art in the Colby Museum that they will work on through the entire semester. This semester, students chose works from The Sea in a Jug exhibit. Brown wrote a reflection and a paper, and then he became more curious about the fellow in the embroidered coat holding a scroll and pen, “his identity, who he could be.”
One problem, Brown had learned in the class, is that Islamic art like this, from the 18th and 19th centuries, isn’t typically buried with an individual like, say, Egyptian art and artifacts. King Tut’s tomb is filled with what is probably King Tut’s stuff. These paintings most likely were collected in handmade books of notable figures of the time.
Brown also had noted that there can be an informational disconnect between works in smaller collections and the collections of the world’s major museums. So he decided to bridge that gap and see if he could find a clue, maybe a painting of someone with similar clothing.
“Honestly, it was very random,” Brown said. “I was on Google and I was searching through probably hundreds of images at that point. … And one of them caught my eye.”
It wasn’t The Man in the Flowered Coat, but it was a man named Abul Hasan, a 17th century sultan who was wearing a similarly styled outfit. Once Brown had found the sultan, he figured the clothing might be a style particular to an area. A search based on the sultan eventually led to the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands.
“And in that collection there is one portrait of a man that looked very similar to the man in the flowered coat,” Brown said. Same coat. Same yellow tights. Same orange slippers. “It said, in Dutch, that this was Sayyid Muzzafar, commander in chief for Abul Hasan.”
A search for Muzzafar turned up more portraits, and they were similar to that of The Man in the Flowered Coat, right down to the pen and scroll. The image of Muzafar in the collection of the British Museum was nearly identical. Brown, working alone in Roberts close to midnight, grabbed his phone and started texting friends from the class. “I couldn’t keep it to myself,” he said.
And there was corroborating evidence. There are inscriptions on the Colby work, and Alaleh Naderi ’21, who helped curate the Colby Museum of Art exhibition The Sea in a Jug with Ameri and is from Iran, had worked on translating accompanying text last year. But the inscriptions are a somewhat confusing blend of Urdu, Farsi, and Arabic, Naderi said. And even with a name, “It wasn’t easy to determine what it meant. Is that the name of the painter? The name of the person in the painting?”
With the subject identified elsewhere, the pieces fell into place. The exhibition was intended to pique the curiosity of those who were viewing the paintings, she said. When that scrutiny is extended over a longer period of time, as in Ameri’s course, discoveries can be made, Naderi said.
“Having the artworks on site and accessible at the museum—the loans from the Welch Collection and Colby’s works—spurred new research. It’s one thing to know that Mughal rulers liked swords and daggers and another thing to hold one of those objects in your hand.” —Elizabeth Finch, Lunder Curator of American Art and interim director of the Lunder Institute for American Art
In fact, Ameri was so inspired by the detective work that she started investigations of her own into the identities of subjects in both the Colby and Welch Collection of Islamic and Later Indian Art, some of which is on loan to Colby and she uses in her teaching. Yusuf Adil Shah, another portrait, was the first ruler of the Adil Shah dynasty in Bijapur and is depicted in a dynastic painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she discovered. And it appears Shahjahan Bahadur is a portrait of the son of a disgraced official of the Mughal court.
She said this is one more example of how works at the Colby Museum of Art “link to resources elsewhere in the world in unexpected ways.”
Elizabeth Finch, Lunder Curator of American Art and interim director of the Lunder Institute for American Art, said accessible collections like Colby’s make art historical research like this possible and help us to “understand images as representing real actors in history.”
“Having the artworks on site and accessible at the museum—the loans from the Welch Collection and Colby’s works—spurred new research,” Finch said. “It’s one thing to know that Mughal rulers liked swords and daggers and another thing to hold one of those objects in your hand and to see the visual damask pattern of watered steel that makes those daggers especially sharp and strong. And then to see someone in a portrait wearing a dagger or, in the case of The Man in the Flowered Coat, holding what appears to be a scroll.”
And all agree that there are other mysteries in the collection waiting to be solved.
“This is a very small discovery,” Brown said, “but it shows that there’s still more to discover. We always think of history as a very concrete thing, but the idea that you can open it up a little bit further—that is very cool to me.”