Portraits of the Masters

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Portraits of Mahatma Morya

By Monsieur Harrisse

Portrait produced by Monsieur Harrisse at the "Lamasery" in New York on February, 1878

The first portrait of the Masters ever produced was done in black and white crayons by the French artist Monsieur Harrisse. The event took place on February 11, 1878, when the amateur artist was visiting the Founders at The "Lamasery" in New York. Col. Olcott writes:

One evening when the conversation turned upon India and Rajput bravery, H. P. B. whispered to me that she would try to get him to draw our Master’s portrait if I could supply the materials. There were none in the house, but I went to a shop close by and purchased a sheet of suitable paper and black and white crayons. The shopkeeper did up the parcel, handed it me across the counter, took the half-dollar coin I gave him, and I left the shop. On reaching home I unrolled my parcel and, as I finished doing it, the sum of half a dollar, in two silver pieces of a quarter-dollar each dropped on the floor! The Master, it will be seen, meant to give me his portrait without cost to myself.[1]

The production took place as follows:

Harrisse was then asked by H.P.B. to draw us the head of a Hindu chieftain, as he should conceive one might look. He said he had no clear idea in his mind to go upon, and wanted to sketch us something else; but to gratify my importunity went to drawing a Hindu head. H.P.B. motioned me to remain quiet at the other side of the room, and herself went and sat down near the artist and quietly smoked. From time to time she went softly behind him as if to watch the progress of his work, but did not speak until it was finished, say an hour later. I thankfully received it, had it framed, and hung it in my little bed-room. But a strange thing had happened. After we gave the picture a last glance as it lay before the artist, and while H.P.B. was taking it from him and handing it to me, the cryptograph signature of my Guru came upon the paper; thus affixing, as it were, his imprimatur upon, and largely enhancing the value of his gift.[2]

As to the likeness and method of production of the portrait, the Colonel wrote:

At that time I did not know if it resembled the Guru or not, as I had not yet seen him. When I did, later on, I found it a true likeness and, moreover, was presented by him with the turban which the amateur artist had drawn in the picture as his head-covering. Here was a genuine case of thought-transference, the transfer of the likeness of an absent person to the brain-consciousness of a perfect stranger. Was it or was it not passed through the thought of H.P.B.? I think so.[3]

By Hermann Schmiechen

In 1884, Col. Olcott brought to his European tour a photo of Harrisse's portrait. He writes:

Desirous of getting something better, than this amateurish sketch, I asked five of our London members, who were professional or skilled amateur painters to compete in a friendly way in the attempt to get by intuition a clearer view of the Master’s face. They willing agreed and, each taking the photograph in turn, the five pictures were made and given me. Neither, however, were very successful.[4]

In his book Old Diary Leaves, he explained this further:

On 13th of June I returned to London in company with Mr. Judge. . . . A little while before this I had instituted a friendly competition between certain of our London associates who were either professional or amateur artists, to try an important psychical experiment. . .
I wanted to get a better portrait if possible, and bethought me to try whether my sympathetic artistic colleagues in London could get clearer, more life-like, spiritual glimpses of this divine face. Upon broaching the subject — three professional and two amateurs — whom I addressed, very kindly and willingly consented, and I lent each in turn the photographic copy of the original crayon sketch that I had with me. The results were very instructive. One had got the right idea of his complexion, another of his profile and a third, my respected friend Mme. De Steiger, of the luminous aura that shimmers about his head. But neither of the five was, on the whole, a better likeness than the New York sketch by Monsieur Harrisse.[5]

Portrait by Hermann Schmiechen

It was then that Schmiechen came into the scene:

Before this competition was finished, Herr Hermann Schmiechen, a very well-known German portrait-painter, domiciled in London, joined the Society and, to my great delight, at once agreed to have the inspirational test tried with him. The photograph was handed him with no suggestion as to how the subject should be treated. He began work on 19th June and finished it on 9th July. Meanwhile I visited his studio four times alone and once with H.P.B. . . . Unlike the others, who all copied the profile idea of Harrisse, Schmiechen gave the face in full front view, and poured into the eyes such a flood of life and sense of the indwelling soul as to fairly startle the spectator.[6]

The marvellous result—the seventh attempt at a portrait—is known to all of us; his portrait of this Master, as well as the one of the other [Master Koot Hoomi], which he painted from a crude sketch in Mr. Sinnett’s possession, seeming as life-like as if the subjects had posed to him in the usual way.[7]

Portraits of Mahatma Koot Hoomi

By Hermann Schmiechen

Portrait of Master K.H. painted by Hermann Schmiechen in London, July 1884

Mahatma M. wrote to H. P. Blavatsky:

Take her [Laura C. Holloway] with you to Schmiechen and tell her to see. Yes, she is good and pure and chela-like; only flabby in kindness of heart. Say to Schmiechen that he will be helped. I myself will guide his hands with brush for K[oothoomi]'s portrait.[8]

In an account by Laura C. Holloway she seems to have seen Master K.H. helping the artist:

... saw the figure of a man outline itself beside the easel and, while the artist with head bent over his work continued his outlining, it stood by him without a sign or motion. She [the seer] leaned over to her friend and whispered: "It is the Master K. H.; he is being sketched. He is standing near Mr. Schmiechen." "Describe his looks and dress," called out H. P. B. And while those in the room were wondering over Madame Blavatsky’s exclamation, the woman addressed said: "He is about Mohini’s height; slight of build; wonderful face full of light and animation; flowing curly black hair, over which is worn a soft cap. He is a symphony in greys and blues. His dress is that of a Hindu - though it is far finer and richer than any I have ever seen before - and there is fur trimming about his costume. It is his picture that is being made, and he himself is guiding the work."[9]

However, the presence of Master M. was confirmed by Mahatma K.H. himself in a letter to Mr. Sinnett that said:

I believe you are now satisfied with my portrait made by Herr Schmiechen and as dissatisfied with the one you have? Yet all are like in their way. Only while the others are the productions of chelas, the last one was painted with M.'s hand on the artist's head, and often on his arm.[10]

See also

Online resources



  1. Henry Steel Olcott, Old Diary Leaves First Series (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1974), 370-371.
  2. Henry Steel Olcott, Old Diary Leaves First Series (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1974), 371.
  3. Henry Steel Olcott, Old Diary Leaves First Series (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1974), 371-372.
  4. A Historical Retrospect — 1875-1896 — of the Theosophical Movement, (Madras, India: Theosophical Society), 13.
  5. Henry Steel Olcott, Old Diary Leaves Third Series (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1972), 162-163.
  6. Henry Steel Olcott, Old Diary Leaves Third Series (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1972), 163.
  7. A Historical Retrospect — 1875-1896 — of the Theosophical Movement, (Madras, India: Theosophical Society), 13.
  8. The Portraits of the Mahatmas at Blavatsky Study Center
  9. The Portraits of the Mahatmas at Blavatsky Study Center
  10. Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in Chronological Sequence No. 129 (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 430. See Mahatma Letter No. 129 page 2.