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Arts of the book

Safavid empire

At the close of the fifteenth century and the dawn of the Safavid reign (1502), magnificent illuminated manuscripts were produced by outstanding artists at two major centers in the Iranian world: the Turkmen court of Tabriz in the west, where Sultan Muhammad was one of the principal artists, and the city of Herat in the east, home to the famous painter Bihzad. During the Safavid era, splendid manuscripts such as the poet Ferdowsi's "Book of Kings" were produced by a large royal workshop in Tabriz, of which Bihzad was appointed head. Tabriz, Herat, and Shiraz were the principal centers of painting and manuscript copying; their schools produced a great number of works for a wide public.

Artistic patronage declined in Tabriz after 1550, but a new royal workshop was founded in the new capital, Qazvin. A plethora of workshops sprang up in the vicinity of Mashad and Herat in the northeastern province of Khurasan from 1570 onward, and benefited from the influential patronage of Prince Ibrahim Mirza. Khurasan neighbors the Uzbek city of Bukhara, where a prolific school (under the protection of the Shaibanids) developed a style of its own in the Timurid tradition of Herat.

Styles changed considerably during the sixteenth century, with a growing taste for genre scenes and individual works, and a shift in techniques and sources of inspiration.

In 1598, Shah 'Abbas I the Great (1587-1629) transferred his capital from Qazvin to Isfahan. Trade and crafts developed, the kingdom opened to Europe, and Iran entered a period of profound change. The traditional art of manuscript illustration was somewhat eclipsed by the painting of portraits and genre scenes for albums. The royal workshops, formerly directed by the painter Sadiqi, were taken over by others such as the famous Riza Abbasi, who headed the new Isfahan workshops from 1603; aspects of European engraving - which often reached Iran via India - began to be incorporated into traditional Iranian drawing and painting.

Although provincial centers such as Shiraz (which was in decline) and Herat were fairly active in the seventeenth century - as was the school of Bukhara in Uzbekistan - it was essentially the age of the "Isfahan School", famous for a number of significant painters including Riza, Muin, Shafi, Ali-Quli Jabbadar, and Muhammad Zaman (whose work shows the greatest European influence). It is important to note the exchanges between the artists of this school and those who painted palace frescoes (some artists were active in both fields) or decorated textiles and ceramics.

Ottoman empire

During the early years of Süleyman's reign many of the court workshops were headed by Persian masters; the painters from the Ottoman imperial workshop (nakkaşhane) drew on Timurid examples but they quickly developed their own typical style, whose powerful realism often verges on caricature.

The so-called saz style appeared in the early sixteenth century, inspired by models from China and inner Asia. Ottoman saz compositions associate flowers and feathery serrated-edge leaves often described as dagger-like (hançeri), but they also depict mythological and wild animals as well as fairies.

The proponent of the saz style in the Ottoman court was an artist known as Şahkulu. Starting around 1545-50, a new decorative style inspired by the flowers grown in the palace gardens and dubbed the şukufe (flower) style began to dominate the Ottoman decorative vocabulary. Its creation is attributed to Kara Memi, a student of Şahkulu whom he succeeded as the head illuminator-painter of the court workshop. At around the same time as the manuscripts illuminated by Kara Memi, the new Ottoman floral style appeared in almost all media: tiles, wall paintings, textiles, Iznik ceramics.

Dynastic portraiture was an enduring tradition in the Ottoman empire, which started as early as the reign of Mehmet II (1451-81); it contributed to glorify the power of the Ottoman sultans for centuries and ended only with the dissolution of the empire in the twentieth century. Mehmet II commissioned Italian artists whose produced portraits in their own style which were in turn used as models by local artists in the Istanbul palace. The renowned portrait of Mehmed II painted on paper is ascribed to Sinan Bey or his pupil Şiblizade Ahmed, both of whom were painters at the Ottoman court. The portrait, which depicts the seated Sultan smelling a rose, draws heavily upon the Timurid conventions of small scale portraiture. The more realistically rendered face inspired by an Italian model was, however, grafted onto the seated body, creating a hybrid portrait that conformed neither to the eastern nor western traditions. Ottoman dynastic portraiture was codified by the late sixteenth century, during Murad III period (1574-1595).

Mughal Empire

The painters invited to the Mughal court by emperor Humayun during his stay in Iran were Persians who worked in the Safavid style, but the influence of the Indian artists employed in the workshop they set up gave rise to a particular style which is attested by the great manuscripts produced at the time of Akbar, the Babur-nameh and Akbar-nameh. The artists depicted life at the court, everyday domestic scenes, hunting, war, in a narrative style full of ardor and impetuous movement. Treated in acid colors, the folios feature crowds of well-known figures, visible to the waist, whose clothes and weapons are described in minute detail. Hindu themes blend with elements of Christian iconography. During the following reigns, the number of people represented decreased, the colors tended to become pastel, and artists experimented on light and perspective. A profusion of imperial portraits appeared, sometimes allegorical, as well as portraits of high-ranking officials. Some painters portrayed rams, horses and other animals considered more exotic in India such as the zebra and the turkey. Flowers and plants were dealt with in a naturalistic manner, probably inspired in part by European models.


Hanceri leaf and dragon Hanceri leaf and dragon
MAO 1204
© RMN / Bellot 01-000386
The miracle of the bees The miracle of the bees
MAO 927
© RMN / Berizzi
Binding with princely scenes Binding with princely scenes
Ucad 27659
© RMN / Berizzi
Three figures Three figures
OA 7131
© RMN / Lewandowski
Three figures Three figures
OA 7131
© RMN / Lewandowski
Three figures Three figures
OA 7131
© RMN / Lewandowski
Mîr 'Alî Mîr 'Alî
OA 7157
© 2006 Musée du Louvre / E. Revault