A collecting guide to Persian miniature paintings

With Persian miniatures achieving prices ranging from a few thousand pounds to several million, it can be daunting to know how to begin a collection. Barney Bartlett, Islamic art specialist at Christie’s in London, offers an expert guide — illustrated with works offered at Christie’s

Persian miniatures offered in Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds Including Oriental Rugs and Carpets at Christie's in London

Left: Rustam kicking away the boulder pushed by Bahman, attributed to Aqa Mirak, assisted by Qasim bin ’Ali, Safavid Tabriz, circa 1530. Folio: 18½ x 12¼ in (47.2 x 31.1 cm). Sold for £4,842,000 on 31 March 2022 at Christie’s in London. Right: An illustrated double-sided folio from the Nahj al-Faradis, Timurid Herat, circa 1465. Folio: 16¼ x 11⅞ in (41.4 x 30.3 cm). Sold for £848,750 on 24 October 2019 at Christie’s in London

Throughout the history of Persian art, there has been an extremely rich tradition of court painting, and the various centres of royal patronage produced some of the greatest painters of all time. It was uncommon for Persian artists to sign their works until the 16th century, so an understanding of the particular features of the major schools makes it easier to recognise and identify works.

The Ilkhanid period (1256-1353)

The main centres of art production in the Ilkhanid period were Tabriz in present-day Iran and Baghdad in Iran. The main artistic focus at this time was the production of illuminated and illustrated manuscripts of religious and secular texts, and it is from manuscript illustration that the tradition of Persian painting developed. In the great cultural exchange that followed the Mongol conquests of the 13th century, East Asian influences are felt in Persian art. Ilkhanid painters introduce new motifs, including dragons, lotuses and peonies, into the Perso-Islamic repertoire.

The use of paper and textiles had become widespread, allowing designs to be translated easily from one medium to another. Among the most famous Ilkhanid artists was Ahmad Musa, who was described by the 16th-century painter Dust Muhammad as the man who ‘unveiled the face of painting’.

The Jalayirid period (1340-1411)

The Jalayarid Sultanate emerged from the disintegration of the Ilkhanate in western Persia. The Jalayirids were enchanted by Persian poetry; as a result, the paintings that have survived from this period tend to be illustrations to subjects popular in contemporary verse, such as battle scenes and heroic accomplishments.

The Jalayarid school developed a stronger sense of colour and design than Ilkhanid painting, while also taking care to depict individualised faces (rather than facial types) and the details of everyday life. Two of the most celebrated Jalayirid artists were Junayd and ’Abd al-Hayy, both students of Shams al-Din (who had himself been a pupil of Ahmad Musa).

The Timurid period (c. 1370-1507)

The Timurid dynasty was the final great dynasty to rise from the Central Asian steppe. Its founder, Amir Timur, conquered territory from Syria to India and sent craftsmen back to his capital, Samarkand, in present-day Uzbekistan. This movement of skills and ideas initiated 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.

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Baysunghur in the guise of Solomon with the Queen of Sheba, Timurid Herat, mid-15th century. Folio: 10¾ x 6¾ in (27.5 x 16.8 cm). Sold for £781,200 on 27 April 2023 at Christie’s in London

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Portrait of a prince with attendant, signed Mahmud Muzahhib, Shaybanid Bukhara, circa 1550. Folio: 14½ x 9⅞ in (36.7 x 25.2 cm). Sold for £176,400 on 25 April 2024 at Christie’s in London

One of the most famous Persian artists from this period was Kamal al-Din Bihzad. Bihzad transformed the somewhat rigid, academic painting style common in the early years of the Timurid dynasty by injecting more life and personality. His figures were animated and individualised, his rocks, trees and vegetation more naturally rendered than those of his predecessors.

As the Timurid empire collapsed, there was a late flourishing of the Herati style in the city of Bukhara after it was conquered by the Shaybanids in the early 16th century. The leading artist of the the Bukhara school was Mahmud Muzahhib, whose patron was the great bibliophile Sultan ’Abd al-Aziz.

The Safavid dynasty (1501-1736)

The Safavids established their capital at Tabriz, which became the main centre of early Safavid painting. It was here that some of the most renowned artists of the time painted the illustrations to the magnificent Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp. Although during this period Shiraz in the southwest of Iran was no longer a major court, many magnificent 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.

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The Court of Pir Bbudaq, Shiraz, Iran, circa 1455-60. Folio: 15⅜ x 13⅛ in (39 x 34 cm). Sold for £433,875 on 25 April 2013 at Christie’s in London

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The impoverished dervish of Faryab crosses the river on his prayer mat, the painting Safavid Isfahan, circa 1600. Folio 11⅜ x 7⅜ in (28.5 x 18.5 cm). Sold for £386,500 on 21 April 2016 at Christie’s in London

The most distinguished of the Safavid rulers, and the greatest patron of the arts, was Shah ’Abbas, who ruled from 1587 to 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 became more calligraphic, human figures filled out, and artists favoured a palette of browns, purples and yellows.

It was under Shah ’Abbas that the primary focus of Persian painting began to move away from the illustration of texts and towards standalone paintings. 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 subject, 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. It is at this time that the first Persian oil paintings on canvas were produced. 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.

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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-sized oil paintings. Meanwhile, it was common for prominent Qajar artists to apply intricate decoration to lacquered objects such as pen cases, caskets and bookbindings.

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, the resulting works have their own unique beauty.

Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds including Rugs and Carpets is on 25 April 2024 at Christie’s in London. On view from 20 to 24 April

Further reading

  • 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)
  • Oleg Grabar, Mostly Miniatures. An Introduction to Persian Painting (Princeton and Oxford, 2000)
  • 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)
  • 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)
  • Jon Thompson and Sheila R. Canby (eds.), Hunt for Paradise: Court Arts of Safavid Iran, 1501-1576 (Milan and New York, 2003)

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