The story of Yusuf and Zulaikha was a very popular tale and many versions of it were rendered over the centuries by various authors in many languages such as Arabic, Persian, Persian, Turkish and Urdu. It finds its most profound expression in Jami’s rendering of it in his Haft Awrang, considered to be one of the masterpieces of Persian literature. In the narrative, an incredibly handsome Yusuf becomes a victim of his brothers’ jealousy and they throw him into a well. Rescued by a merchant who hears his cries for help, he is taken by him to be sold in a slave market in Egypt . Yusuf is put up for sale, astounding everyone who sees him by his wondrous beauty.
As Jami says:
“The beauty of Yusuf so charmed each eye,
That thousands of Memphis came round to buy.
Each one his costliest treasure sold,
And ran to the mart with ready gold.
They say an old crone for his beauty sighed:
She caught up a handful of yarn and cried:
“No gold or silver to show have I,
But this will admit me with those who would buy”
There is tumult in the market as everyone tries to bid for him. Zulaikha, the rich and beautiful wife of Potiphar, struck by Yusuf’s beauty outbids everyone and buys him.
The painting has a strong narrative quality, detailed in three distinct registers. In the distant background the painter exhibits his virtuoso by rendering a vast expanse with a series of alternating land and water bodies and a royal encampment quite unrelated to the story. The main narrative unfolds in the midground with Zulaikha gazing rapturously at the haloed Yusuf who stares ahead. In the foreground, the bags of gold and jewels that Zulaikha has bought Yusuf with are carefully assessed and counted, with the old crone attempting to buy Yusuf with some yarn.
The artist fashions a fantastical landscape, conjuring a red and iridescent gold sunset and rich forest glades, endowing the painting with jewel-like quality.
The scene is rendered with remarkable detail, illustrating the artist’s masterly draughtsmanship. Smooth shading is heightened with fine line drawing, evident in the detail of the portraits, the exquisite precision with which each leaf of the trees is carefully delineated. The faces of the figures are expressive and delicately painted. The use of perspective displays a strong European influence, and was a stylistic trait incorporated by many late Mughal and provincial Mughal painters from the late eighteenth century onwards.