Islamic Art specialist Behnaz Atighi Moghaddam reveals why this small portrait by one of the leading Persian miniaturist painters of the Safavid Empire — offered in London on 25 October — represents an ageless story of love and longing
‘Reza ’Abbasi was an outstanding painter,’ says Behnaz Atighi Moghaddam, Associate Specialist in Islamic Art at Christie’s in London. ‘He had an incredible talent for depicting the mood and emotions of his sitters.’
Perhaps the finest example of this can be seen in a small portrait of a young man called A Seated Youth, which was painted by the Persian artist around 1630 and will be offered for sale in the Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds auction at Christie’s on 25 October.
The picture, which comes from the collection of the Iranian scholar and collector Fatema Soudavar-Farmanfarmaian, measures little more than seven inches in height, and was, Atighi Moghaddam believes, made for a specific purpose. ‘Paintings like these were commissioned by men of wealth and power both as gifts and symbols of status. However, our example was commissioned for a completely different purpose. It was created as a token of love for a longing couple. As a result, I think it is one of the most romantic surviving examples of Persian painting to come up at auction.’
Reza ’Abbasi was born around 1565. Little is known about his early life, yet for him to have ended up as a celebrated painter in the troubled court of Shah Abbas I, who reigned from 1588 to 1629, suggests that he must have had a keen sense of diplomacy as well as talent.
Abbas was a paranoid tyrant, so suspicious that he murdered or blinded his three sons who survived to adulthood. Yet he was also a great patron of the arts, relaxing the religious injunctions around Islamic painting, heralding a prolific era of Iranian art in the court of Isfahan. As a result Reza was able to pursue a more radical, experimental agenda, although this did not stop him leaving the court of the Safavid Empire for a time.
‘During his time away from the royal court, he began making paintings that reflected his surroundings, studying men from everyday life, and in particular dervishes,’ Atighi Moghaddam explains. ‘When he eventually returned to court, his painting style had completely changed.’
A Seated Youth dates from the artist’s second period at court, when, perhaps, he was less enthralled by its magnificent charms. One of the most intriguing aspects of the picture is an inscription on the painting which reads: ‘The work of the worthless speck of dust, the least [of men], Reza ’Abbasi, for one in service to an offspring of viziers, Mirza Muhammad Shafi’ — May God keep him from harm!’
‘The lavish textiles that adorn this young man are illustrated in such a detailed way that one feels their softness just by gazing at them’ — Behnaz Atighi Moghaddam
‘It is something of a mystery,’ admits Atighi Moghaddam, ‘but these lengthy signatures, which he annotated on portraits he created for his close companions, are unique to Reza. I think it is possible to assume they were done light-heartedly — that he was making up complex titles in mocking imitation of court.’
The picture is a pendant to another, similar-sized painting called Woman Counting on her Fingers (above), which can be found in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. ‘The pendant also bears an inscription, and although much of it has been deliberately defaced, the content is almost identical to the inscription on our painting,’ says Atighi Moghaddam. The two portraits, then, would seem to represent a couple in love, their bodies curving towards one another in longing.
Although we may never know who these lovers were, the painting is invaluable for its documentary value, particularly in understanding the fashions of the period. ‘The lavish textiles that adorn this young man must have been inspired by the expensive silks that Isfahan was famous for,’ says Atighi Moghaddam. ‘They are illustrated in such a detailed way that one feels their softness just by gazing at the painting.’