Considering its unusually large scale, scholars have suggested that this painting of an embracing couple may have once served as a model for wall painting. No text is found on the painting to aid in the identification of the couple, but they have been compared to legendary lovers of Persian literature, including the characters of Khusrau and Shirin, known from the poet Nizami’s Khamsa (Quintet).
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Geography:Attributed to Iran, possibly Tabriz
Medium:Opaque watercolor and gold on paper
Dimensions:H. 19 1/4 in. (48.9 cm) W. 12 9/16 in. (31.9 cm)
Credit Line:Cora Timken Burnett Collection of Persian Miniatures and Other Persian Art Objects, Bequest of Cora Timken Burnett, 1956
A Princely Couple Embrace
The unusually large size of this picture and the monumental scale of its youthful couple have led scholars to conclude that it may have served as the model for a wall painting. Unlike the turbaned youth and elaborately dressed woman who look into each other’s eyes, the landscape setting is given a summary treatment. The figures are framed by flowering trees that appear to be mere saplings when compared with the blossoming plant that grows between them. Although chaste, their embrace carries an erotic charge, and they have sometimes been identified with legendary lovers celebrated in Persian literature, including Humay and Humayun or Khusrau and Shirin, but there is no text associated with the painting that would permit the couple to be named.
Historical sources mention the existence of erotic wall paintings as early as the eleventh century, and figural wall paintings are both described and illustrated in literary texts. Those showing lovers are associated particularly with Zulaikha’s efforts, described in the Qur’an, to seduce Yusuf in a chamber embellished with erotic wall paintings. The most popular literary rendering of this story is the one composed by the fifteenth-century poet ‘Abd al-Rahman Jami, but the closest visual parallels to the princely couple here are found in wall paintings of the same tale depicted in a mid-sixteenth-century copy of Sa‘di’s Bustan now in Vienna.
The proportions of the figures in the Metropolitan Museum’s painting, along with details of their clothing and the pattern of tattoos on the woman’s face, recall similar features in manuscript illustrations produced in Iraq and Iran in the late fourteenth and the early fifteenth century (University Library, Istanbul) and in a copy of Nizami’s "Khusrau and Shirin" (Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). The Freer manuscript, documented as produced in Tabriz and thought to date to the early fifteenth century, provides an approximate date and place of production for the present painting.
Priscilla P. Soucek in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. Lentz and Lowry 1989, pp. 58–61, 331–32, no. 17.
2. Nationalbibliotek, Vienna (Ms. AF 103, fol. 73a); illustrated in Hillenbrand 1977, pp. 74, 77, no. 175.
Iranian Institute. "Exhibition of Persian Art," 1940, Gal. IX, no. 8.
Washington. Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. "Timur and the Princely Vision. Persian Art and Culture in the Fifteenth Century," April 14, 1989–July 6, 1989, no. 17.
Los Angeles. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "Timur and the Princely Vision. Persian Art and Culture in the Fifteenth Century," August 13, 1989–November 5, 1989, no. 17.
Pope, Arthur Upham. Masterpieces of Persian Art. New York, 1945. p. 164, ill. pl. 122 (b/w).
Ackerman, Phyllis. "The Iranian Institute, New York." In Guide to the Exhibition of Persian Art. 2nd. ed. New York: Iranian Institute, 1940. Gallery IX, case 8, p. 250.
Ettinghausen, Richard, Hugo Buchthal, Otto Kurz, Marvin Chauncey Ross, Basil Gray, George C. Miles, Nabih A. Faris, and Carl Johan Lamm. Ars Islamica, part 2, vol. VII (1940). ill. fig. 7 (b/w).
Dimand, Maurice S. "New Accessions of Islamic Art." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin vol. 16 (April 1958). pp. 228, 231, ill. p. 231 (b/w).
Grube, Ernst J. "The Early School of Herat and its Impact on Islamic Painting of the Later 15th, the 16th and 17th Centuries." In The Classical Style in Islamic Painting. Venice: Edizioni Oriens, 1968. ill. pl. 14 (b/w).
Gray, Basil. Persian Painting. New York, 1977. pp. 39–54.
Hillenbrand, Robert. Imperial Images in Persian Painting. Edinburgh: Scottish Arts Council Gallery, 1977. no. 175, pp. 74, 77.
Swietochowski, Marie, and Richard Ettinghausen. "Islamic Painting." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, n.s., vol. 36, no. 2 (Autumn 1978). pp. 12–13, ill. p. 13 (b/w).
Lentz, Thomas W., and Glenn D. Lowry. "Persian Art and Culture in the Fifteenth Century." In Timur and the Princely Vision. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1989. no. 17, pp. 56, 60, 331–32, ill. p. 60 (color).
Yarshater, Ehsan, ed. Encyclopaedia Iranica vol. 5 (1992). p. 784, ill. pl. XCVIII (b/w).
Sims, Eleanor, B. Marshak, and Ernst J. Grube. "Persian Painting and its Sources." In Peerless Images. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002. no. 156, pp. 241–42, ill. p. 241 (color).
Ekhtiar, Maryam, Priscilla P. Soucek, Sheila R. Canby, and Navina Haidar, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 121, pp. 6, 180–81, ill. p. 181 (color).
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Abu'l Qasim Firdausi (Iranian, Paj ca. 940/41–1020 Tus)
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