Akbar, the greatest of all his line, succeeded his father in 1556 at the age of 13, and by his military and administrative genius and a policy of enlightened toleration brought a new, synthetic civilization into being during his fifty years' reign, before being succeeded by Jahangir, his son by a Hindu wife—a Rajput princess.
Akbar's painters had wide opportunities of practising their art; the Emperor had himself taken drawing lessons in his youth, and he collected an enormous library of Persian manuscripts, many being illustrated; his calligraphers, miniaturists, and other craftsmen were employed in copying and adorning both the Persian classics and those of India, as well as on chronicles of the reign of the Emperor and his ancestors. An immense album of portraits of all the notables of the time "was also formed, and a number of illustrated books of animal fables were produced.
In the great illustrated chronicles of Akbar's reign the whole life of the ruler, his court and his armies is truthfully and vividly portrayed. Many of the miniatures have a restless energy which seems to reflect the character of the Emperor himself. Sometimes behind the ceremonial and splendour there are hints of the wider, older India. The animal painting affords many charming proofs of that intimate sympathy with animal life which characterizes the Indian outlook. There are pictures of religious teachers and groups of ascetics, bunting and fowling scenes. We see the cultivators at work in the fields, builders and artificers at their tasks, and shepherds with their flocks. But for the most part it is a world of court and camp with occasional Zenana scenes (though life portraits of ladies of high rank were probably never painted) that is chiefly pictured, with incidental glimpses of servants, musicians, dancers, wrestlers, and so on.
The names of nearly one hundred and fifty of Akbar's court painters are known by their signatures or from inscriptions, and it is interesting to observe that most of the names are those of Hindus, to whose skill indeed Akbar's chronicler Abu'1-Fazl accords special praise. None of these were apparently of high caste. Many came from Western India, but it would seem that the Emperor enlisted the talent of half the sub-continent.
Islamic painters worked under the ban of the theologians, the prohibition being based on the theory that the painter, in producing forms of life, was usurping the Creator's function. It is a remarkable proof of Akbar's independence of mind, as well as an example of the mystical side of his complex nature, that he expressly opposed the orthodox view, saying that the painter had peculiar means of recognizing God and of realizing his inferiority to the only Giver of Life. If this were his constant view, one would perhaps have expected some clearer trace of religious feeling in the work of his painters than can be discerned, but theirs is in fact from the first essentially a secular art. Neither Hindus nor Muhammadans could have had the consciousness that they were working, like the painters of Christian Europe or Ancient Buddhism, under the protection and encouragement of a great religion. Both at least were free to develop a close literalism, whether in landscape or in the delineation of human or animal forms. Many Persian conventions still lingered on, side by side with new features, but these mostly disappeared before the middle of Jahangir's reign, and it is at any rate impossible to mistake a typical 'Akbari' miniature for Persian work. Persian example had taught much to the Indian painters, it had enriched their palette and refined their line, but it left few permanent traces.
Akbar's chronicler on the subject of the prowess of his master's painters notes significantly that their pictures 'may be placed beside the wonderful works of the European painters who have attained world-wide fame', and European painting began before the middle of the reign to have visible effects on the court artists in model -ling and perspective, in landscape backgrounds and the drawing of the folds of drapery. The skies, instead of being golden or pure lapis blue, as they would have been in Persia, sometimes show brilliant sunset and cloud effects. Real horses replace the fantastic creatures of Persian convention. Human figures may be stiff and lifeless, but the faces often come alive. Drawn now more and more in profile, in contrast with the three-quarter profile faces which the Persian artist, with his love of graceful curves, preferred, they display in their careful drawing a close study of personality. At the same time, however, unmistakable indigenous elements, to become more marked as time goes on, are always present, as, for instance, in the exuberant female types of Indian tradition.