At the center of this scene, a lady leans on a bolster pillow and languidly holds out a filled cup. Making somewhat immodest eye contact with the viewer, she displays burn marks, associated with mystics and lovers, on her lower arms. A male figure in European dress and hat, perhaps a merchant, kneels before her. The other figures offer refreshments and conversation.
The gardens of Isfahan have delighted their visitors for centuries. In the Safavid period, English and French visitors compared the city to a forest with innumerable trees and extolled its verdant Chahar Bagh, a broad boulevard lined with gardens, parks, and pavilions. The establishment of this garden district was initiated by the ruler Shah ‘Abbas I (r. 1587–1629) as he transformed Isfahan into his new capital city. This charming tile panel permits a glimpse into these seventeenth-century gardens, with all their "sense-ravishing" delights. In a verdant landscape of flowering trees and plants, a small gathering enjoys a picnic, with bowls laden with fruits and long-necked bottles filled with libations.
The corpulent figures are wrapped in the luxurious textiles popular during the reign of Shah ‘Abbas I. Their voluminous patterned robes, silk sashes, and striped turbans are similar to costumes depicted in Persian drawings and paintings of the seventeenth century. Yet, European dress is found here, too, in the man’s dark cloak and hat. The woman—striking a languid pose and making somewhat immodest eye contact with the viewer—also displays a hairstyle, facial features, jewelry, and bodice in an "Occidental" mode. Such imagery was increasingly prevalent in seventeenth-century Isfahan. The contemporary Roman traveler Pietro della Valle, for example, observed architectural decoration in the city featuring men and women in lascivious poses; someof the figures, shown wearing hats, were intended to represent Europeans.
Mirroring the landscapes and lifestyles they depicted, such panels likely adorned the walls of the garden pavilions and palaces of Isfahan. A few panels survive today in museum collections throughout the world. While it is difficult to pinpoint the original location of this particular set of tiles, a photograph published by Friedrich Sarre about 1910 supports a garden context. In Sarre’s image, a group of tiles with a design similar to this one appears in situ upon the walls of a pavilion located at the north end of the Chahar Bagh.
Denise-Marie Teece (author) in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
From a palace pavilion built by Shah Abbas (1583–1627) on the garden avenue of the Chahar Bagh at Isfahan
[ Louis Chardon, New York, until 1903; sold to MMA]
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Ekhtiar, Maryam, Sheila R. Canby, Navina Haidar, and Priscilla P. Soucek, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 162, pp. 173, 235-236, ill. p. 236 (color).