Woman  Applying Henna, Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper

Woman Applying Henna

Object Name:
Album leaf
late 16th century
Attributed to Iran
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper
14 7/16 x 9in. (36.7 x 22.9cm)
Credit Line:
Rogers Fund, 1955
Accession Number:
Not on view
This painting is a rare depiction of a young woman applying henna to her feet, a ritual associated with rite of passage celebrations, specifically marriage, in Iran and surrounding regions. The subject chosen by this unknown artist reflects the increasing interest of Safavid painters of this period in depictions of everyday people and events. The sitter’s right foot rests on a pile of henna leaves, her garments falling back slightly to reveal her gold and gray undergarments. The illustration would have been included in an album of paintings and drawings.
Intended for inclusion in an album of pictures and calligraphies, this painting is a rare depiction of a young woman applying henna to her feet. It incorporates elements associated with the Qazvin school of painting, such as the woman’s peaked cap, delicate facial features, and slender body, as well as the gold vegetation and clouds floating across the surface. The woman’s dress has fallen back to reveal the decorative underwear that covers her thighs and knees. Despite this, her pose and expression are self-absorbed and not overtly erotic. Even though the painting is by an anonymous artist not connected to the Safavid court, it displays a noteworthy awareness of trends current in the work of court artists, such as the heightened interest in depicting commonplace activities and the increase in portraits of individual sitters.
Henna from the flowering plant Lawsonia inermis has been cultivated and used in Iran, the Arab world, and South Asia for dyeing hair, skin, and leather since the second millennium B.C. In most cultures of the Middle East, it is associated with celebrations and rites of passage, particularly marriage. The recipes and forms of decoration with henna vary from region to region. In northwest India and present-day Pakistan, for example, the leaves of the plant are crushed and mixed with lemon juice, oil, and water for painting lacy designs on the hands; in Iran the dried leaves are mixed with water or rosewater for application to the hands and feet for their color alone.[1] In this painting, the sitter’s right foot rests on a bed of henna leaves, while the gold bowl on a small stand at the right contains the liquid with which the leaves are mixed. The depiction in Safavid paintings of tribal women with intricately patterned henna ornament on their hands and feet suggests that in the sixteenth century the difference in taste between urban and rural women extended beyond clothing and headgear.[2]
Sheila R. Canby in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. Mirtaheri, Fatemeh. "La ceremonie du henne en Iran central: Le chant des femmes." Cahiers de musiques traditionnelles 18 [Entre femmes] (2005), pp. 67–78, esp. p. 69.
2. For example, in Nomadic Encampment by Mir Sayyid ‘Ali, from 1539–43 (Harvard University Art Museums, no. 1958.75), the women have arabesque designs in henna on their hands.
Inscription: The signature on the back of the image reads: "The sinner 'Imad al-Hasani. May God forgive his sins."

In Persian langauge and in Nast’liq scrip part of poem of Shāhnma of Ferdowsī, story گفتار اندر خان پنجم و کشتن اسفندیار سیمرغ را (speech regarding the fifth joust and death of Simurgh by the hand of ᾽Isfandiyār)

(Abu’l-Qasim Feardowsi,The Shāhnāmeh (The book of kings), ed, Djalal Khalqi- Muṭlagh, Mazda publishers in association with Bibliotheca Persica, Costa Mesa, California and New York, 1997, vol.5, p243).

Jack S. Rofe, Scotland (until 1929; his sale, Sotheby's, London, December 12, 1929, no. 457); [ E. Beghian, London, in 1931]; [ Hagop Kevorkian, New York, by 1935]; [ Kevorkian Foundation, New York, by 1953–55; sold to MMA]
London. Burlington House. "International Exhibition of Persian Art," January 7, 1931–February 28, 1931, no. 677.

The Iranian Institute. "Exhibition of Persian Art," 1940, Gal. VII, 102B.

Museum für Islamische Kunst, Pergamonmuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. "The Arts of Islam. Masterpieces from the M.M.A.," June 15, 1981–August 8, 1981, no. 80.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Perfect Page: The Art of Embellishment in Islamic Book Design," May 17, 1991–August 18, 1991, no catalogue.

Wilson, Arnold T. "7th January to 28th February, 1931." In Catalogue of the International Exhibition of Persian Art. 3rd. ed. London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1931. no. 677.

Binyon, Laurence, James Vere Stewart Wilkinson, and Basil Gray. Persian Miniature Painting. London: Oxford University Press, 1933. no. 274.

Ackerman, Phyllis. "The Iranian Institute, New York." In Guide to the Exhibition of Persian Art. 2nd. ed. New York: The Iranian Institute, 1940. no. Gallery VII, case 102B, p. 208.

Robinson, Basil William. The Kevorkian Collection: Islamic and Indian Illustrated Manuscripts, Miniature Paintings and Drawings. New York, 1953. no. CCLXXIV, p. 145.

Dimand, Maurice S. "An Exhibit of Islamic and Indian Paintings." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, n. s., vol. 14 (December 1955). p. 92, ill. (b/w).

"Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York." In The Arts of Islam. Berlin, 1981. no. 80, pp. 198-199, ill. p. 199 (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. 146, pp. 173, 219, ill. p. 219 (color).