A significant number of works by Muhammad Baqir survive, including several borders and single-page paintings, dated 1764, that come from a dispersed album. Some of these are based on European prototypes while others depict flowers, reflecting the vogue for bird-and-flower paintings that developed in the eighteenth century and was especially popular in nineteenth-century Iran.
While the subject of dragons in combat with real or imaginary animals has a long history in Persian painting, originating with the Mongols in the thirteenth century, the more immediate inspiration for this composition is most likely in the work of the seventeenth-century Safavid artist Mu'in Musavvir. His numerous drawings of lions depict the beasts with large, expressive eyes similar to those of Muhammad Baqir's creature. What differentiates the eighteenth-century drawing from its Safavid forebears is the use of ink wash, a technique borrowed from European sources, to define the musculature of both lion and dragon. Finally, the iconography of this drawing is novel since customarily both dragons and lions are shown defeating a weaker foe. Here, the two are face to face, with the lion drawing first blood but the outcome of their struggle forever uncertain.
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Title:Lion and Dragon in Combat
Artist:Painting by Muhammad Baqir (Iranian)
Date:second half 18th century
Geography:Made in Iran
Medium:Ink and watercolor on paper
Dimensions:H. 5 1/2 in. (14 cm) W. 9 in. (22.9 cm) Page: H. 8 1/8 in. (20.6 cm) W. 12 1/8 in. (30.8 cm)
Credit Line:Rogers Fund, 1974
Located in the province of Mazandaran, which skirts the southeastern shores of the Caspian Sea, the town of Sari mentioned in the inscription above was near the palaces at Ashraf and Farahabad constructed by the Safavid Shah ‘Abbas I (r. 1587–1629). Following the death of Nadir Shah in 1747, Mazandaran came under the control of the Qajars, the Turkmen tribe that would come to rule all of Iran from 1779. Presumably Muhammad Baqir (active 1750s–60s) found patrons in northern Iran in the period of political dissolution after the demise of Nadir Shah while the Zands were gaining control of the south.
Muhammad Baqir, as Layla Diba has shown, was a student of ‘Ali Ashraf, who, in turn, claimed artistic descent from Muhammad Zaman, one of the most important late Safavid artists, who died before 1700. Along with his teacher and several other artists Muhammad Baqir painted the borders of the St. Petersburg Album, compiled between the 1730s and 1758–59 for one Mirza Mahdi, whom Diba has tentatively identified as a high-ranking official under Nadir Shah. Since Mirza Mahdi was not implicated in Nadir Shah’s assassination in 1747, he continued to enjoy a privileged position and patronized the pictorial arts. A significant number of works by Muhammad Baqir survive, including several borders and single-page paintings, dated 1764, that come from a dispersed album. Some of these are based on European prototypes while others depict flowers, reflecting the vogue for bird and flower paintings that developed in the eighteenth century and was especially popular in nineteenth-century Iran.
While the subject of dragons in combat with real or imaginary animals has a long history in Persian painting, originating with the Mongols in the thirteenth century, the more immediate inspiration for this composition is most likely in the work of the seventeenth-century Safavid artist Mu‘in Musavvir. His numerous drawings of lions depict the beasts with large, expressive eyes similar to those of Muhammad Baqir’s creature. What differentiates the eighteenth-century drawing from its Safavid forebears is the use of ink wash, a technique borrowed from European sources, to define the musculature of both lion and dragon. Finally, the iconography of this drawing is novel since customarily both dragons and lions are shown defeating a weaker foe. Here, the two are face-to-face, with the lion drawing first blood but the outcome of their struggle forever uncertain.
Sheila R. Canby in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. Diba, Layla S. and Maryam Ekhtiar, Royal Persian Paintings: The Qajar Epoch, 1785–1925; Exhibition, The Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, 1998, p. 149.
2. Ibid., p. 154.
3. Canby, Sheila R., Princes, Poets and Paladins; Islamic and Indian Paintings from the Collection of Prince and Princess Sadruddin Aga Khan. Exhibition, London, Cambridge, Mass., and Zurich 1998–99, p. 86.
Lion and Dragon in Combat
While totally different in subject matter and artistic vision, this drawing shows the evolution of the calligraphic style that was first seen in the opening drawing of the exhibition (MMA 41.46). From the first influx of Chinese influence in the late thirteenth to early fourteenth century, the dragon had become thoroughly established in Persian iconography, while until that time it was unknown in the Sasanian and early Islamic artistic tradition of Iran. Some dragon forms had been modified by their journey through the art of Central Asia, while others, as here, were directly influenced by Chinese prototypes. From the beginning, in Islamic Iran, dragons were fearful and evil monsters of the demonic or chthonic world and were often, in carpets and other media as well as paintings and drawings, shown in combat, most often with a simurgh, but also frequently with a ch'i-lin or other form of Chinese fabulous beast. Far more unusual is the depiction seen here of an earthly lion in mortal combat with an unearthly dragon. The power of the king of beasts, muscles taut with strain, contrasts with the sinuous, constricting envelopment of the reptile, while the detail of the dragon's patterned form contrasts with the tactile rendition of the lion's fur.
The artist, Muhammad Baqir, who has written the inscription, "Made in the city of Sari by the humblest Muhammad Baqir," has created a highly polished, finished drawing of a struggle that is not literarily narrative and only traditionally symbolic. It must have been made for a highly sophisticated connoisseur, who wanted what Muhammad Baqir could best produce — a self-contained work that elevated to the highest degree "art for art's sake," in the same way that Persian poetry was more admired for its virtuosity of form than for its content.
The Museum's drawing gives the impression of a carefully planned and tightly controlled work that could readily serve as a model. A direct copy of this drawing is to be found in the collection of Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan (IR.M.50). While a fine drawing, its artist was not quite able to recapture the polish and harmonious tension of the original.
[Swietochowski and Babaie 1989]
Inscription: Signature in Persian in nasta‘liq script at lower right:
دربلده ساری مشق شد کمینه محمد باقر
In the town of Sari, this was drawn by the humble Muhammad Baqir.
(Translation from "Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art," 2011, p. 275).
[ Adrienne Minassian, New York, until 1974; sold to MMA]
Berlin. 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. 81.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Persian Drawings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 13–December 31, 1989, no. 19.
Toronto. Aga Khan Museum. "In Search of the Artist," September 1, 2014–November 16, 2014, no catalogue.
Swietochowski, Marie, and Marilyn Jenkins-Madina. Notable Acquisitions 1965–1975 (1975). p. 135, ill. (b/w).
"Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York." In The Arts of Islam. Berlin, 1981. no. 81, pp. 200–1, ill. p. 201 (b/w).
Swietochowski, Marie, and Sussan Babaie. Persian Drawings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989. no. 19, pp. 48–49, ill. pl. 19 (b/w).
Canby, Sheila R., ed. "Five Centuries of Painting." In Persian Masters. Bombay: Marg Publications, 1990. pp. 113–28.
Yarshater, Ehsan, ed. Encyclopaedia Iranica vol. 7 (1996). p. 546, ill. pl. XLIII (b/w).
Bernus-Taylor, Marthe. "Musée du Louvre 23 Avril–23 Juillet 2001." In L'Etrange et le Merveilleux en Terres d'Islam. Paris: Musée du Louvre, 2001. no. 68, p. 101, ill. (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. 192, pp. 275–76, ill. p. 275 (color).
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