The Persian Empire had an extremely rich tradition of court painting, and its various centres of royal patronage produced some of the greatest painters of all time. As it was uncommon for Persian artists to sign their works until the 16th century, an understanding of the particular features of key schools makes it easier to recognise works that may have passed through many hands and many countries.
The Ilkhanid period (1256-1353)
The main centres of art production in the Ilkhanid period were Tabriz in present-day Iran and Baghdad in Iraq. During this time the arts of the book, including illuminated and illustrated manuscripts of religious and secular texts, became a key artistic focus. Artists introduced new motifs, including Chinese-influenced features such as dragons, lotuses and peonies.
The widespread use of paper and textiles allowed designs to be easily translated from one medium to another. Among the most famous Ilkhanid artists was Ahmad Musa, described by the 16th-century painter Dust Muhammad as the man who ‘unveiled the face of painting’.
The Jalayirid period (1340-1411)
The Jalayirids ruled western Persia. Under their leadership, the dramatic Ilkhanid style of painting was replaced by a more tranquil vision. The Jalayirids were enchanted by Persian poetry; as a result, the paintings that have survived from this period tend to depict subjects popular in contemporary poetry, such as battle scenes and heroic accomplishments. One of the most celebrated Jalayirid artists was Junayd, a pupil of Shams al-Din (who had himself been a pupil of Ahmad Musa).
The Timurid period (c. 1370-1507)
The Timurid was the final great dynasty to rise from the Central Asian steppe. Its founder, Timur, brought craftsmen from a range of conquered lands to his capital in Samarkand in present-day Uzbekistan, initiating one of the most brilliant periods in Islamic art.
Timurid rulers were great supporters of the arts of the book, and their extensive patronage attracted many artists, architects and men of letters. The eastern Islamic world became a significant cultural hub, with Herat, in Afghanistan, as its centre. Thanks to this culture of manuscript illumination and illustration, the Herat school is often regarded as the apogee of Persian painting.
One of the most famous Persian artists from this period was Kamal al-Din Bihzad. Bihzad transformed the more rigid, academic painting style common in the early years of the Timurid dynasty, injecting more life and individuality. His figures were animated and individualised; his treatment of rocks, trees and vegetation more naturally rendered than those of his predecessors.
The Safavid dynasty (1501-1736)
The Safavids established their capital at Tabriz. Although during this period Shiraz in the southwest of Iran was no longer a major court, many magnificent illustrated manuscripts continued to be produced in the unique Shirazi style. This style was a hybrid, drawing on local tradition but assimilating elements of many other Persian schools. It is characterised by a tendency to divide the illumination into geometrically defined sections, with complex architectural forms painted in bright colours.
The most distinguished of Safavid rulers, and its greatest patron of the arts, was Shah ’Abbas, who ruled from 1587-1629. Shah ’Abbas transferred his capital to Isfahan, in southern Iran, where he built a new city alongside the old one. During this period lines become more calligraphic, human figures fill out, and artists favour a palette of browns, purples and yellows.
Among the most celebrated artists of this time was Riza ’Abbasi (c. 1565-1635). Thanks to his influence, semi-nude women, relaxed youths and lovers came to replace the heroes of Persian epics in the repertoire of many artists. Riza had a gift for capturing the inner emotions of his sitter, and his work would set the tone for much of the 17th century.
In the mid-17th century, as a result of increased contact between Europe and Iran, European conventions of modelling and perspective began to appear in Persian art. Muhammad Zaman imported European styles into Persian court painting, which quickly became standard practice. Although this gave Safavid art a new look on the surface, the substance remained entirely Persian.
Persian painting in the 18th and 19th centuries
With the end of the Safavid period, Persian painting was all but ignored for nearly half a century. During the Afsharid dynasty (1736-96) and Zand periods (1751-94), political uncertainties resulted in a drying up of artistic commissions.
The rise of the Qajar dynasty (1779-1924) signalled a new era of peace, and Qajar shahs relied heavily on the visual arts to solidify their position and promote their reputation. Throughout this period, as in previous centuries, artists working in a range of media produced manuscripts featuring miniature paintings. But different Qajar kings preferred different mediums. Fath Ali Shah, who reigned between 1797 and 1834, for instance, was an avid sponsor of life-size oil paintings.
After photography came to Iran in the early 1840s, it became common for artists to paint from photographs, and the two-dimensional Persian painting tradition fell out of favour. Although 19th-century methods of painting differed dramatically from those of previous centuries, these works have their own unique beauty.
Sheila R. Canby, The Golden Age of Persian Art, 1501-1722 (New York, 2000), The Rebellious Reformer. The Drawings and Paintings of Riza-yi ’Abbasi of Isfahan (London, 1996) and Persian Painting (London, 1993); Robert Hillenbrand (ed.), The Art of the Saljuqs in Iran and Anatolia (Costa Mesa, CA, 1994); Arthur Upham Pope and Phyllis Ackerman (eds.), A Survey of Persian Art from Prehistoric Times to the Present (London and New York, 1938); Thompson, Jon and Canby, Sheila R. (eds.), Hunt for Paradise: Court Arts of Safavid Iran, 1501-1576 (Milan and New York, 2003); Oleg Grabar, Mostly Miniatures. An Introduction to Persian Painting (Princeton and Oxford, 2000); B.W. Robinson, Persian Paintings in the Collection of the Royal Asiatic Society (Royal Asiatic Society Books, 1998), A Descriptive Catalogue of the Persian Paintings in the Bodleian Library (Oxford, 1958) and Persian Miniature Painting from Collections in the British Isles (exhibition catalogue, London, 1967)