Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Arts of Iran, 1600–1800

The Safavids continued to be important patrons of the arts under Shah ‘Abbas (r. 1587–1629). Among the artists of his time was Riza-yi ‘Abbasi (ca. 1565–1635), son of the court painter ‘Ali Asghar and pupil of the well-known Mu‘in. Although he was heir to a very traditional form of painting, Riza introduced a new set of subjects to the Persian oeuvre (50.164). Semi-nude women, languid youths, and lovers soon came to replace the heroes of the Shahnama and the Khamsa in many an artist’s repertoire. These fashionable figures were also copied in textiles, figural tile panels, and other media. It is not, however, simply the subject matter of his paintings, but Riza-yi’s gift for capturing the inner emotions of his sitter and his famed calligraphic line that have earned him admiration. His work set the tone for much of the seventeenth century, as his students used it as a springboard for developing their own styles (1974.290.43).

The role of Iran as a major participant in a larger economy created by the European commercial expansion of the sixteenth century was another influence in the arts of this era. The production of artistic goods became hugely profitable and ‘Abbas had a large hand in encouraging the growth of local crafts. In pottery, imitations of ceramics from Iznik in Turkey and of blue-and-white ware from China were especially popular, and the native technique of lusterware was revived (30.95.158). Carpet weaving was transformed from a craft practiced by nomads and peasants into a national industry, with designs drafted by professional artists in the court workshops (50.190.1). Many Persian carpets can be found in collections throughout Europe as they became status symbols. Fabrics were another major industry; travelers Jean Chardin and Jean-Baptiste Tavernier both described silk-weaving factories in the cities of Yazd and Kashan, and the production of velvet increased as it became highly fashionable (59.58).

In the seventeenth century, adventurous traders and ambassadors sent by foreign kings came to Iran bearing works of art as presents to Persian high officials. The many prints, illustrated books, and oil paintings they brought provided new inspiration for artists in Iran. In some instances, these works were copied directly, such as lovers from a Dutch print that appear as a fresco, or a biblical scene reworked as a bookbinding (34.23). In other cases, the European works provided new technical devices, which local artists combined with elements of traditional Persian painting. Modeling, foreshortening, spatial recession, and the medium of oil painting were all adopted by Persian artists but were employed in depictions of familiar subjects or in combination with traditional conventions.

Another effect of the economic boom was the creation of a new class of patrons. The urban rich, Armenian merchants, foreign travelers, and artists interested in each other’s works could now all afford to purchase art. As a result, single-page paintings, less costly than fully illustrated manuscripts, became popular. In addition, artists were no longer dependent on the royal workshop for employment.

After ‘Abbas I, the Safavids continued as patrons, but on a reduced scale. ‘Abbas II (r. 1642–66) added the Chihil Sutun, a pavilion with large-scale wall paintings of historical and literary subjects, to the royal complex in Isfahan. Sulaiman (r. 1666–94) commissioned two further palaces, the Hasht Bihisht and the Talar-i Ashraf. The great days of Safavid art were over, however, and Iran was heading in new directions.

Under the Afsharids (1736–96), Zands (1750–94), and Qajars (1779–1924), lifesize oil painting became the new medium for expressing royal identity. Portraits of Nadir Shah of the Afsharid dynasty have strong military overtones. He was often depicted on horseback (a European convention), or with ships amassed in the background, a reference to the navy he was attempting to build. The Zand royal image was more relaxed, the iconic image being Karim Khan smoking a huqqa pipe. His reign marked the start of Mirza Baba’s career, but this artist was more active in the following Qajar era. Heavy modeling, atmospheric lighting, and static poses mark Qajar portraits. The canvases were often shaped to fit into niches, and formed an integral part of architectural decoration.

Architecturally, the contributions of the Zands lie mainly in Shiraz, which Karim Khan redeveloped along the lines of Isfahan with a large public square as the central organizational unit. Under the Qajars, the capital was moved to Tehran and the city was much developed in the years after 1800.