Paintings and Drawings from Iran
Hidden within the pages of scientific, historical, or poetic texts, intricately designed images have formed an integral part of Persian manuscripts since at least the thirteenth century. They illustrate particular moments in the narrative and enhance the overall visual beauty of a work.
In the latter part of the fifteenth century, the relationship between word and image became increasingly relaxed. Manuscript paintings began to occupy entire pages, while the text was relegated to small panels or eliminated altogether. This new aesthetic led in part to the development of paintings and drawings outside the context of the book.
The genre reached its zenith in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries during the rule of the powerful Safavid dynasty of Iran (1501–1722).
Literary associations, however, were never completely abandoned. Individual illustrations were assembled in albums (muraqqa’), and frequently incorporated writing or were paired with lyrical verses. Others consisted of figural compositions and poems artfully assembled into a visually coherent whole. One of the most popular subject matters consisted of idealized types, such as the handsome youth, the coy young woman, or the wise old master, already familiar from Persian poetry. By drawing on a conventionalized body of imagery, single-page compositions can be interpreted as pictorial equivalents of poetic sentiments and “visual poems” in their own right.
Independent compositions tended to be less costly and labor-intensive to produce than illustrated manuscripts and therefore enjoyed the patronage of a broader, more diverse audience. In addition to the court, members of the Safavid elite, such as physicians, merchants, and provincial governors, began to commission and collect individual folios of painting and poetry, which they gathered in albums. The genre also allowed patrons greater freedom in the creative process as they were now able to express their own distinct taste and aesthetic preferences with each folio.
Persian Poetry and Painting
Poetry, not prose, has been the preferred form of literary expression in Iran. Governed by specific meter, rhyme, and line number, Persian poetry is particularly notable for its evocative imagery and metaphors. Rooted in medieval court culture, it includes many references to precious metals, luxurious fabrics, and fragrant scents. Nature, however, offers the most enduring source of inspiration and was often used to conjure up human beauty: The face was compared to a full moon, the eyes to narcissi, and the
slender figure to a swaying cypress. As there is no differentiation in the gender or case of pronouns in the Persian language, the same word is used for “he, she, him, her,” introducing an intentional level of ambiguity. The subjects of Safavid single-page compositions are also often androgynous in their appearance, and both men and women are portrayed with similar conventionalized traits: almond-shaped eyes, a budlike mouth, or dark ringlets of hair.
After the twelfth century, Sufism (Islamic mysticism) spread throughout the Islamic world and further enriched Persian poetry, heightening its spiritual content and introducing additional levels of meaning. It became unclear whether poets such as Rumi (died 1273) or Hafiz (died 1390) referred in their verses to earthly or heavenly yearning, or whether they described human or divine union. Similarly, a seventeenth-century painting of a beautiful woman could be seen as a metaphor for human or divine beauty. Much like Persian poetry, many of these images lent themselves to a multiplicity of interpretations, which further enhanced their meaning and significance.
Riza Abbasi (circa 1565–1635), one of the most celebrated Persian painters, is considered the unrivaled master of the genre. Trained by his father, the artist Ali Asghar, Riza joined the court of Shah Abbas I in his youth. In 1603, he received the honorific title “Abbasi” (i.e., of Abbas) from his royal patron but left the court shortly afterward. According to several contemporary accounts, Riza was temperamental by nature and reportedly preferred the company of wrestlers, libertines, and other “lowlifes” to that of courtiers. He rejoined the royal atelier (workshop) sometime around 1610 and remained in the shah’s service until his death in 1635.
Like many of his contemporaries, Riza Abbasi worked on manuscript illustrations as well as individual drawings and paintings, which became the hallmark of his work and that of later Safavid painting in general. Particularly notable for their sensuous calligraphic lines and inventive use of vibrant colors, these compositions range from meticulously finished idealized images to more spontaneous, naturalistically conceived portraits. Riza’s innovative, lyrical style of painting became a source of inspiration for subsequent generations of artists, many of whom forged his signature to increase the artistic and monetary value of their own work.
With the growing popularity of album-page compositions in seventeenth-century Iran, artists began to expand their repertoire of subject matter and experiment with new formats and pictorial styles. European art was one of the main sources of inspiration. Introduced by diplomats, merchants, and missionaries, all of whom began to
frequent Iran at this time, Western paintings and luxury goods exposed Safavid artists to new pictorial notions, such as naturalism, perspective, and the play of light and shade. These new conventions are perhaps best expressed in the Safavid interest in more naturalistic figural representation.
Like all portraiture, Safavid examples focus on the physical appearance and psychological state of their subjects, creating a more personal and immediate engagement between the viewer and image. However, they still followed the norms of Persian painting, which has always favored abstraction over representation. Even if more naturalistic than the poetically inspired figural images, Persian portraiture frequently oscillated between the real and the ideal, the specific and the generalized, evoking different readings and interpretations.