The artist Riza‑yi 'Abbasi revolutionized Persian painting and drawing with his inventive use of calligraphic line and unusual palette. He painted The Lovers toward the end of a long, successful career at the Safavid court. The subject of a couple entwined reflects a newly relaxed attitude to sensuality introduced in the reign of Shah Safi (r. 1629–42). Here the figures are inextricably bound together, merged volumes confined within one outline.
Reflecting the loosening of morals during the reign of Shah Safi (1629–42), Riza has portrayed a man and woman in an intricately composed amorous embrace. While the artist had notably depicted nude women in the 1590s, the inclusion here of a male partner shifts the nature of the image from a catalyst for erotic thoughts to a more explicit representation of sexual foreplay. As several scholars have noted, the couple neither look at one another nor show any emotion in their faces. While Riza may have been conforming to the Persian artistic norm of masking sitters’ feelings, he may also have been suggesting a state of reverie, in which the figures’ actions are removed from a specific time and place. As a ground for this composition, Riza has employed colored paper, which serves as a foil for the gold trees, bushes, and clouds of the landscape. In keeping with the style of the second half of his career, he has emphasized ovoid forms such as the woman’s thigh and the arms and faces of both figures. The heavy, toffeelike drapery of her shawl and his sash is also typical of Riza’s later works. Many details underscore the erotic content of the painting. Aside from the man’s caressing the woman’s abdomen and catching her breast in the crook of his arm, her exposed navel and bare toes are signs of her sensuality. The wine cup poised on her knee, the half-empty bottle of red wine in the left foreground, and the plate with only a few pieces of fruit left suggest that the pair have already been enjoying themselves. Although the woman is fully clothed and her hair covered by a turban, she was most likely a prostitute. Until the mid-1640s prostitution was not only tolerated but also taxed in Safavid Iran, thus serving as a good source of income for the government. The wealth and resulting leisure of seventeenth-century Safavid urban society allowed prostitutes to prosper, dress in elegant clothes, and entertain highborn clients. While the identities of these particular figures remain unknown, the man could presumably afford the services of his elegant lover. Sheila R. Canby in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011] Footnotes: 1. Stchoukine, Ivan. Les peintures des manuscrits de Shah ‘Abbas Ier à la fin des Safavis. Bibliotheque archeologique et historique, 76. Paris, 1964, p. 194; Canby 1996, p. 173.
Signature: Signed and dated by Riza-yi `Abbasi
Inscription: Signature and date in Persian in nasta‘liq script:
در روز 3 شنبه هشتم شهر شوال/ با إقبال سنهٔ 1039 به إتمام رسید. رقم کمینه رضاء عباسى/ ه
Completed on Tuesday, eighth of Shawwal, from the fortunate year of
A.H. 1039 [May 21, 1630 A.D.]. Painted by the humble Riza-yi ‘Abbasi
Friedrich Sarre, Berlin (by 1910–d. 1945); his wife, Maria Sarre, Ascona, Switzerland, (until 1950; sold to Paul Kempner forMMA)
London. Burlington House. "International Exhibition of Persian Art," January 7, 1931–February 28, 1931, no. 695.
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Swietochowski, Marie, and Richard Ettinghausen. "Islamic Painting." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, n.s., vol. 36, no. 2 (Autumn 1978). pp. 30-31, ill. p. 30 (color).
Welch, Stuart Cary. The Islamic World. vol. 11. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987. pp. 110-111, ill. fig. 81 (color).
Canby, Sheila R. "The Drawings and Paintings of Riza-Yi Abbasi of Isfahan." In The Rebellious Reformer:
. London: Azimuth Editions, 1996. no. 125, pp. 167, 173, ill. p. 167 (color).
Nashat, Guity, and Lois Beck, ed. Women in Iran from the Rise of Islam to 1800. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003. p. 221, ill. fig. 6 (b/w).
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. 148, p. 221, ill. p. 221 (color).