The court paintings of eighteenth and nineteenth century India epitomise the cultural and political amalgam that began formation within the region almost five centuries prior. Muslim forces invading from the west at the end of the twelfth century conquered and established themselves across the majority of the Indian subcontinent. These Sultanates reigned for over 300 years until another Muslim dynasty, the Mughal Empire originating out of Central Asia, swept down across the subcontinent and supplanted them. Beleaguered, both militarily and socio-politically, first by the Sultanates and then by the Mughal Empire, the Rajput kingdom states of North-West India managed to cling to their Hindu beliefs and traditions as well as many elements of their administrative independence. Hostilities persisted until the start of the seventeenth century when, one by one, the Hindu rulers accepted the sovereignty of the Mughal emperor Akbar in trade for positions within his court, conditional control over their individual territories and the preservation of their faith. Allowed to flow more freely, it was at this point in time that cultural transference between the Mughal and Hindu states began to reach its height. Visits of tribute, residencies of tutelage and other forms of interaction between the Hindu nobility and the Mughal court helped catalyse this process. The Mughal Empire brought with them all the fineries of their sophisticated and opulent court culture, in particular, the styles and traditions of Persian court painting. Notable examples of this being the use of a cool palette, perspectival recession and identifiable portraiture. More readily exposed and accustomed to the refined and lavish offerings of Mughal court life, the Hindu nobility were quick to recognise the value of such cultural riches in demonstrating their stature and authority. They began sponsoring painters from their courts to learn the Persian styles and techniques, as well as commissioning Mughal court painters. These artists would produce for them their own portraits of important identities, scenes of court and palace life as well as images of Hindu religious narratives. Dependent upon the level of Mughal influence in each territory, it was not long before distinct regional styles of painting developed with variable degrees of blending of Mughal and classical Indian painting practice.

The court paintings included as part of the R.M. and C.H. Berndt Bequest Collection were sought and collated by Ronald and Catherine over a span of years from a variety of secondary market sources around the world. These delicately detailed watercolour paintings utilising opaque paints on quality paper explore scenes of everyday palace life, examine the complexities of courtship and matters of the heart, as well as illustrate poetry, folk-tales, Hindu epics and scripture. The inclusion of secular themes in these paintings sets them apart from the other collections included in the exhibition, reflecting the social circumstance of those commissioning and accessing these works. Paintings such as these were traditionally utilised within a folio through which nobles would peruse and discuss amongst themselves or reflect upon during moments of solitude.