Persian art

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One of the distinctive "canonical" types of Luristan bronze, the "Master of Animals standard", here on two levels, showing "zoomorphic juncture"; 8.5 inches high.

Persian art or Iranian art has one of the richest art heritages in world history and encompasses many disciplines including architecture, painting, weaving, pottery, calligraphy, metalworking and stonemasonry. At different times, influences from the art of neighbouring civilizations have been very important, and latterly Persian art gave and received major influences as part of the wider styles of Islamic art. This article covers the art of Persia up to 1925, the end of the Qajar dynasty; for later art see Iranian modern and contemporary art, and for traditional crafts see arts of Iran.

From the Achaemenid Empire of 550 BC–330 BC for most of the time a large Iranian-speaking state has ruled over areas similar to the modern boundaries of Iran, and often much wider areas, sometimes called Greater Iran, where a process of cultural Persianization left enduring results even when rulership separated. The courts of successive dynasties have generally led the style of Persian art, and court-sponsored art has left many of the most impressive survivals.

Early pottery from Susa[edit]

Pottery Vessel, 4th millennium BC
Main article: Susa

Evidence of a painted-pottery civilization around Susa has been dated to c 5000 BCE.[1] Susa was firmly within the Sumerian Uruk cultural sphere during the Uruk period. An imitation of the entire state apparatus of Uruk, proto-writing, cylinder seals with Sumerian motifs, and monumental architecture, is found at Susa. Susa may have been a colony of Uruk. As such, the periodization of Susa corresponds to Uruk; Early, Middle and Late Susa II periods (3800–3100 BCE) correspond to Early, Middle, and Late Uruk periods.

Shortly after Susa was first settled 6000 years ago, its inhabitants erected a temple on a monumental platform that rose over the flat surrounding landscape. The exceptional nature of the site is still recognizable today in the artistry of the ceramic vessels that were placed as offerings in a thousand or more graves near the base of the temple platform. Nearly two thousand pots were recovered from the cemetery most of them now in the Louvre. The vessels found are eloquent testimony to the artistic and technical achievements of their makers, and they hold clues about the organization of the society that commissioned them.[2] Painted ceramic vessels from Susa in the earliest first style are a late, regional version of the Mesopotamian Ubaid ceramic tradition that spread across the Near East during the fifth millennium B.C.[2]

Susa I style was very much a product of the past and of influences from contemporary ceramic industries in the mountains of western Iran. The recurrence in close association of vessels of three types—a drinking goblet or beaker, a serving dish, and a small jar—implies the consumption of three types of food, apparently thought to be as necessary for life in the afterworld as it is in this one. Ceramics of these shapes, which were painted, constitute a large proportion of the vessels from the cemetery. Others are course cooking-type jars and bowls with simple bands painted on them and were probably the grave goods of the sites of humbler citizens as well as adolescents and, perhaps, children.[3] The pottery is carefully made by hand. Although a slow wheel may have been employed, the asymmetry of the vessels and the irregularity of the drawing of encircling lines and bands indicate that most of the work was done freehand.


Elamite art, from the south and west of modern Iran shared many characteristics with the neighbouring art of Mesopotamia, though it was often less sophisticated. Cylinder seals, small figures of worshippers, gods and animals, shallow reliefs, and some large statues of rulers are all found.

Luristan bronzes[edit]

Horse bit cheekpiece with "Master of Animals" motif, about 700 BC
Main article: Luristan bronze

Luristan bronzes (rarely "Lorestān", "Lorestāni" etc in sources in English) are small cast objects decorated with bronze sculptures from the Early Iron Age which have been found in large numbers in Lorestān Province and Kermanshah in west-central Iran.[4] They include a great number of ornaments, tools, weapons, horse-fittings and a smaller number of vessels including situlae,[5] and those found in recorded excavations are generally found in burials.[6] The ethnicity of the people who created them remains unclear,[7] though they may well have been Persian, possibly related to the modern Lur people who have given their name to the area. They probably date to between about 1000 and 650 BC.[8]

The bronzes tend to be flat and use openwork, like the related metalwork of Scythian art. They represent the art of a nomadic or transhumant people, for whom all possessions needed to be light and portable, and necessary objects such as weapons, finials (perhaps for tent-poles), horse-harness fittings, pins, cups and small fittings are highly decorated over their small surface area.[9] Representations of animals are common, especially goats or sheep with large horns, and the forms and styles are distinctive and inventive. The "Master of Animals" motif, showing a human positioned between and grasping two confronted animals is common[10] but typically highly stylized.[11] Some female "mistress of animals" are seen.[12]

The Ziwiye hoard of about 700 BC is a collection of objects, mostly in metal, perhaps not all in fact found together, of about the same date, probably showing the art of the Persian cities of the period.


Colossal bull head capital, Persepolis

Achaemenid art includes frieze reliefs, metalwork such as the Oxus Treasure, decoration of palaces, glazed brick masonry, fine craftsmanship (masonry, carpentry, etc.), and gardening. Most survivals of court art are monumental sculpture, above all the reliefs, Persian column capitals and other sculptures of Persepolis (see below for the few but impressive Achaemenid rock reliefs).

Although the Persians took artists, with their styles and techniques, from all corners of their empire, they produced not simply a combination of styles, but a synthesis of a new unique Persian style.[13] Cyrus the Great in fact had an extensive ancient Iranian heritage behind him; the rich Achaemenid gold work, which inscriptions suggest may have been a specialty of the Medes, was for instance in the tradition of the delicate metalwork found in Iron Age II times at Hasanlu and still earlier at Marlik.

Rock reliefs[edit]

The triumph of Shapur I over the Roman Emperor Valerian, and Philip the Arab, Naqsh-e Rustam.
Taq Bostan; the "knight" is probably Khosrow Parviz mounted on Shabdiz

The large carved rock relief, typically placed high beside a road, and near a source of water, is a common medium in Persian art, mostly used to glorify the king and proclaim Persian control over territory.[14] It begins with Lullubi and Elamite rock reliefs, such as those at Kul-e Farah and Eshkaft-e Salman in southwest Iran, and continues under the Assyrians. The Behistun relief and inscription, made around 500 BC for Darius the Great, is on a far grander scale, reflecting and proclaiming the power of the Achaemenid empire.[15] Persian rulers commonly boasted of their power and achievements, until the Muslim conquest removed imagery from such monuments; much later there was a small revival under the Qajar dynasty.[16]

Behistun is unusual in having a large and important inscription, which like the Egyptian Rosetta Stone repeats its text in in three different languages, here all using cuneiform script: Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian (a later form of Akkadian).[17] This was important in the modern understanding of these languages. Other Persian reliefs generally lack inscriptions, and the kings involved often can only be tentatively identified. The problem is helped in the case of the Sassanids by their custom of showing a different style of crown for each king, which can be identified from their coins.[18]

Naqsh-e Rustam is the necropolis of the Achaemenid dynasty (500–330 BC), with four large tombs cut high into the cliff face. These have mainly architectural decoration, but the facades include large panels over the doorways, each very similar in content, with figures of the king being invested by a god, above a zone with rows of smaller figures bearing tribute, with soldiers and officials. The three classes of figures are sharply differentiated in size. The entrance to each tomb is at the centre of each cross, which opens onto to a small chamber, where the king lay in a sarcophagus.[19] The horizontal beam of each of the tomb's facades is believed to be a replica of the entrance of the palace at Persepolis.

Only one has inscriptions and the matching of the other kings to tombs is somewhat speculative; the relief figures are not intended as individualized portraits. The third from the left, identified by an inscription, is the tomb of Darius I the Great (c. 522–486 BC). The other three are believed to be those of Xerxes I (c. 486–465 BC), Artaxerxes I (c. 465–424 BC), and Darius II (c. 423–404 BC) respectively. A fifth unfinished one might be that of Artaxerxes III, who reigned at the longest two years, but is more likely that of Darius III (c. 336–330 BC), last of the Achaemenid dynasts. The tombs were looted following the conquest of the Achaemenid Empire by Alexander the Great. [20]

Well below the Achaemenid tombs, near ground level, are rock reliefs with large figures of Sassanian kings, some meeting gods, others in combat. The most famous shows the Sassanian king Shapur I on horseback, with the Roman Emperor Valerian bowing to him in submission, and Philip the Arab (an earlier emperor who paid Shapur tribute) holding Shapur's horse, while the dead Emperor Gordian III, killed in battle, lies beneath it (other identifications have been suggested). This commemorates the Battle of Edessa in 260 AD, when Valerian became the only Roman Emperor who was captured as a prisoner of war, a lasting humiliation for the Romans. The placing of these reliefs clearly suggests the Sassanid intention to link themselves with the glories of the earlier Achaemenid Empire.[21] There are three further Achaemenid royal tombs with similar reliefs at Persepolis, one unfinished.[22]

The seven Sassanian reliefs, whose approximate dates range from 225 to 310 AD, show subjects including investiture scenes and battles. The earliest relief at the site is Elamite, from about 1000 BC. About a kilometre away is Naqsh-e Rajab, with a further four Sassanid rock reliefs, three celebrating kings and one a high priest. Another important Sassanid site is Taq Bostan with several reliefs including two royal investitures and a famous figure of a cataphract or Persian heavy cavalryman, about twice life size, probably representing the king Khosrow Parviz mounted on his favourite horse Shabdiz; the pair continued to be celebrated in later Persian literature.[23] Firuzabad, Fars and Bishapur have groups of Sassanian reliefs, the former including the oldest, a large battle scene, now badly worn.[24] At Barm-e Delak a king offers a flower to his queen.

Sassanian reliefs are concentrated in the first 80 years of the dynasty, though one important set are 6th-century, and at relatively few sites, mostly in the Sassanid heartland. The later ones in particular suggest that they draw on a now-lost tradition of similar reliefs in palaces in stucco. The rock reliefs were probably coated in plaster and painted.[25]

The rock reliefs of the preceding Persian Selucids and Parthians are generally smaller and more crude, and not all direct royal commissions as the Sassanid ones clearly were.[26] At Behistun an earlier relief including a lion was adapted into a reclining Herakles in a fully Hellenistic style; he reclines on a lion skin. This was only uncovered below rubble relatively recently; an inscription dates it to 148 BC.[27] Other reliefs in Iran include the Assyrian king in shallow relief at Shikaft-e Gulgul; not all sites with Persian reliefs are in modern Iran.[28] Qajar reliefs include a large and lively panel showing hunting at the royal hunting-ground of Tangeh Savashi, and a panel, still largely with its colouring intact, at Taq Bostan showing the shah seated with attendants.

The standard catalogue of pre-Islamic Persian reliefs lists the known examples (as at 1984) as follows: Lullubi #1-4; Elam #5-19; Assyrian #20-21; Achaemenid #22-30; Late/Post-Achaemenid and Seleucid #31-35; Parthian #36-49; Sasanian #50-84; others #85-88.[29]

Panorama of Naqsh-e Rustam. Achaemenid tombs above, Sassanian reliefs below. The tombs, from left to right, probably belong to: Darius II, Artaxerxes I, Darius I, Xerxes I


Parthian fresco, Dura-Europos
Main article: Parthian art

The art of the Parthians was a mix of Iranian and Hellenistic artwork. The Parthian Empire existed from 247 BC to 224 AD in what is now Greater Iran and several territories outside it. Parthian places are often overlooked in excavations. The research situation and the state of knowledge on Parthian art is therefore still very patchy. Even after the period of the Parthian dynasty, art in its fashion continued in surrounding areas for some time. Even in narrative representations of the actors do not look at the object of their action, but refer to the viewer. These are features that anticipate the art of medieval Europe and Byzantium.

Parthian sites are often overlooked in excavations, thus the state of research knowledge in Parthian art is not complete. The excavations at Dura-Europos in the 20th century provided many new discoveries. The classical archaeologist and director of the excavations, Michael Rostovtzeff, realized that the art of the first centuries AD, Palmyra, Dura Europos, but also in Iran up to the Buddhist India followed the same principles. He called this artwork Parthian art.[30]

The most characteristic feature of the "Parthian" art is frontality which is not a special feature of Iranic or Parthian art and first appeared in the art of Palmyra.[31] There are doubts whether this art can be called a "Parthian" art or that it should be associated with any particular regional area; there is no evidence that this art was created outside the middle-Euphrates region then brought to Palmyra for example.[32] This art is better thought of as a local development common to the middle Euphrates region.[32]


Main article: Sasanian art

Sasanian art, or Sassanid art, was produced under the Sasanian Empire which ruled from the 3rd to 7th centuries AD, before the Muslim conquest of Persia was completed around 651. In 224 AD, the last Parthian king was defeated by Ardashir I. The resulting Sassanid dynasty would last for four hundred years, ruling modern Iran, Iraq, and much territory to the east and north of modern Iran. At times the Levant, much of Anatolia and parts of Egypt and Arabia were under its control. It began a new era in Iran and Mesopotamia, which in many ways was built on Achaemenid traditions, including the art of the period. Nevertheless there were also other influences on art of the period that came from as far as the Mediterranean.

The art of the Sassanids is mainly characterized by its architecture, reliefs and metalwork. There are also outstanding achievements in carvings and paintings. Free standing sculptures faded out of popularity in this time as compared to the period under the Parthians.

Bowl painted on slip under transparent glaze (polychrome), Nishabur, 9th or 10th century. National Museum of Iran, Tehran.

Sassanid art depicts very courtly and chivalric scenes. The images of rulers dominates many of the surviving works, though none are as large as the Colossal Statue of Shapur I. Hunting and battle scenes enjoyed a special popularity. Representations are often arranged like a coat of arms, which in turn may have had a strong influence on the production of art in Europe and East Asia. Although Parthian art preferred the front view, the narrative representations of the Sassanian art often features figures shown in the profile or a three-quarter view. Frontal views occur less frequently.

Sasanian glass is a silica-soda-lime glass production characterized by thick glass-blown vessels relatively sober in decoration, avoiding plain colours in favour of transparency and with vessels worked in one piece without over- elaborate amendments. Thus the decoration usually consists of solid and visual motifs from the mould (reliefs), with ribbed and deeply cut facets, although other techniques like trailing and applied motifs were practised.

Early Islamic period[edit]

Bowl with Kufic Inscription, 10th century

Persia managed to retain its cultural identity after the Muslim conquest of Persia, which was complete by 654, and the Arab conquerors soon gave up attempts to impose the Arabic language. Nishapur during the Islamic Golden Age, especially the 9th and 10th centuries, was one of the great centres of pottery and related arts.[33] Most of the ceramic artefacts discovered in Nishapur are preserved in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and museums in Tehran and Mashhad. Ceramics produced at Nishapur showed links with Sassanid art and Central Asian art.[34]

The Samanid period saw the creation of epigraphic pottery. These pieces were typically earthenware vessels with black slip lettering in Kufi script painted on a base of white slip. These vessels would typically be inscribed with benedictions or adages.[35] Samarqand and Nishapur were both centers of production for this kind of pottery.[36]


Main article: Persian carpet

Carpet weaving is an essential part of Persian culture and art. Within the group of Islamic carpets produced by the countries of the so-called "rug belt", the Persian carpet stands out by the variety and elaborateness of its designs.

Persian carpets and rugs of various types were woven in parallel by nomadic tribes, in village and town workshops, and by royal court manufactories alike. As such, they represent different, simultaneous lines of tradition, and reflect the history of Iran and its various peoples. The carpets woven in the Safavid court manufactories of Isfahan during the sixteenth century are famous for their elaborate colours and artistical design, and are treasured in museums and private collections all over the world today. Their patterns and designs have set an artistic tradition for court manufactories which was kept alive during the entire duration of the Persian Empire up to the last royal dynasty of Iran. Exceptional individual Safavid carpets include the Ardabil Carpet (now in London and Los Angeles) and the Coronation Carpet (now in Copenhagen). The Baharestan Carpet is a lost Sasanian carpet for the royal palace at Ctesiphon, and the oldest significant carpet, the Pazyryk_burials#Pazyryk_carpet was possibly made in Persia.

Carpets woven in towns and regional centers like Tabriz, Kerman, Mashhad, Kashan, Isfahan, Nain and Qom are characterized by their specific weaving techniques and use of high-quality materials, colours and patterns. Town manufactories like those of Tabriz have played an important historical role in reviving the tradition of carpet weaving after periods of decline. Rugs woven by the villages and various tribes of Iran are distinguished by their fine wool, bright and elaborate colours, and specific, traditional patterns. Nomadic and small village weavers often produce rugs with bolder and sometimes more coarse designs, which are considered as the most authentic and traditional rugs of Persia, as opposed to the artistic, pre-planned designs of the larger workplaces. Gabbeh rugs are the best-known type of carpet from this line of tradition.

The Hunting carpet made by Ghyath ud-Din Jami. Wool, cotton and silk, 1542-3

The art and craft of carpet weaving has gone through periods of decline during times of political unrest, or under the influence of commercial demands. It particularly suffered from the introduction of synthetic dyes during the second half of the nineteenth century. Carpet weaving still plays a major part in the economy of modern Iran. Modern production is characterized by the revival of traditional dyeing with natural dyes, the reintroduction of traditional tribal patterns, but also by the invention of modern and innovative designs, woven in the centuries-old technique. Hand-woven Persian carpets and rugs were regarded as objects of high artistic and utilitarian value and prestige from the first time they were mentioned by ancient Greek writers, until today.

Although the term "Persian carpet" most often refers to pile-woven textiles, flat-woven carpets and rugs like Kilim, Soumak, and embroidered tissues like Suzani are part of the rich and manifold tradition of Persian carpet weaving.

In 2010, the "traditional skills of carpet weaving" in Fārs and Kashan were inscribed to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists.[37][38]

Persian miniature[edit]

Main article: Persian miniature
Behzad's Advice of the Ascetic (c. 1500-1550). As in Western illuminated manuscripts, exquisitely decorated borders were an integral part of the work of art.

A Persian miniature is a small painting on paper, whether a book illustration or a separate work of art intended to be kept in an album of such works called a muraqqa. The techniques are broadly comparable to the Western and Byzantine traditions of miniatures in illuminated manuscripts. Although there is an equally well-established Persian tradition of wall-painting, the survival rate and state of preservation of miniatures is better, and miniatures are much the best-known form of Persian painting in the West, and many of the most important examples are in Western, or Turkish, museums. Miniature painting became a significant Persian genre in the 13th century, receiving Chinese influence after the Mongol conquests, and the highest point in the tradition was reached in the 15th and 16th centuries. The tradition continued, under some Western influence, after this, and has many modern exponents. The Persian miniature was the dominant influence on other Islamic miniature traditions, principally the Ottoman miniature in Turkey, and the Mughal miniature in the Indian sub-continent.

Persian art under Islam had never completely forbidden the human figure, and in the miniature tradition the depiction of figures, often in large numbers, is central. This was partly because the miniature is a private form, kept in a book or album and only shown to those the owner chooses. It was therefore possible to be more free than in wall paintings or other works seen by a wider audience. The Qu'ran and other purely religious works are not known to have been illustrated in this way, though histories and other works of literature may include religiously related scenes, including those depicting the Prophet Muhammed, after 1500 usually without showing his face.[39] As well as the figurative scenes in miniatures, which this article concentrates on, there was a parallel style of non-figurative ornamental decoration which was found in borders and panels in miniature pages, and spaces at the start or end of a work or section, and often in whole pages acting as frontispieces. In Islamic art this is referred to as "illumination", and manuscripts of the Qu'ran and other religious books often included considerable number of illuminated pages.[40] The designs reflected contemporary work in other media, in later periods being especially close to book-covers and Persian carpets, and it is thought that many carpet designs were created by court artists and sent to the workshops in the provinces.[41]


Main article: Safavid art

Safavid art is the art of the Persian Safavid dynasty from 1501 to 1722. It was a high point for the art of the book and architecture; and also including ceramics, metal, glass, and gardens. The arts of the Safavid period show a far more unitary development than in any other period of Iranian art,[42] with the same style, diffused from the court, appearing in carpets, architectural tiles, ceramics, and manuscript illumination.

Plate decorated with two pomegranates, v. 1500, the Louvre

Arts of the book[edit]

Under the Safavids, the art of the book, especially the Persian miniature painting, constituted the essential driving force of the arts. The ketab khaneh, the royal library-workshop, provided most of the sources of motifs for objects such as carpets, ceramics or metal.

Various types of books were copied, illuminated, bound and sometimes illustrated: religious books – Korans, but also commentaries on the sacred text and theological works—and books of Persian literatureShahnameh, Nizami's Khamsa, Jami al-Tawarikh by Rashid-al-Din Hamadani, Timur nāmeh—encyclopedias and scientific treatises of Sufism. Paper, a Chinese invention arriving early in Iran (13th century), was always used. One notes the frequent use of coloured papers. Towards 1540, a marbled paper also appeared, which however rapidly disappeared again.

The bindings were mostly accomplished with tinted maroquin of very fine quality. They could be gilded and stamped with geometric, floral or figurative motifs, or embossed in blue. In the second half of the 16th century, they pierced the leather covers to allow the coloured paper or silk pages to be seen. In the same period, at Shiraz, appeared lacquered bindings, which remain however very rare and highly valued in Iran.

The decoration of the margins was realised in various ways: sometimes they were inserted in a different paper, (a tradition that appeared in the 15th century); sprinkled with gold, following a Chinese custom; or painted with colours or gold. The style of illustrations varied greatly from one manuscript to another, according to the period and centre of production.


Tile with young man. Earthenware, painted on slip and under transparent glaze. Northwestern Iran, Kubachi ware, 17th century.

The study and dating of ceramics under Shah Ismail and Shah Tahmasp is difficult because there are few pieces which are dated or which mention the place of production. It is also known that the most powerful personages preferred Chinese porcelain by far over locally produced ceramics. Many locations of workshops have, however, been identified, although not with certainty:

The first five are more certain than the last four, having been cited in the sources, but no one is absolutely certain.

In general, the decors tend to imitate those of Chinese porcelain, with the production of blue and white pieces with Chinese form and motifs (curved marly, chi clouds, dragons etc.) In any case, the Persian blue is distinguished from the Chinese blue by its more numerous and subtle nuances. Often, quatrains by Persian poets, sometimes related to the destination of the piece (allusion to wine for a goblet, for example) occur in the scroll patterns. One can also notice a completely different type of decor, much more rare, which carries iconography very specific to Islam (Islamic zodiac, bud scales, arabesques) and seems influenced by the Ottoman world, as is evidenced by feather-edged anthemions (honeysuckle ornaments) widely used in Turkey.

Numerous types of pieces were produced: goblets, plates, long-necked bottles, spitoons, etc. Canteens can be noted with very small necks and bellies that are flat on one side and very rounded on the other.

With the closing of the Chinese market in 1659, Persian ceramic soared to new heights, to fulfill European needs. The appearance of false marks of Chinese workshops on the backs of some ceramics marked the taste that developed in Europe for far-eastern porcelain, satisfied in large part by Safavid production. This new destination led to wider use of Chinese and exotic iconography (elephants) and the introduction of new forms, sometimes astonishing (hookahs, octagonal plates, animal-shaped objects).

During the same time period, new figures appeared, influenced by the art of the book: young, elegant cupbearers, young women with curved silhouettes, or yet cypress trees entangling their branches, reminiscent of the paintings of Reza Abbasi. One notes the use of beautiful yellows, and of the technique of lustre still present in some pieces in the 17th and 18th centuries.


Bronze ewer, 16th century

Metalwork saw a gradual decline during the Safavid dynasty, and remains difficult to study, particularly because of the small number of dated pieces. Under Shah Ismail, one notes a perpetuation of the shapes and decorations of Timurid inlays: motifs of almond-shaped glories, of shamsa (suns) and of chi clouds are found on the inkwells in the form of mausoleums or the globular pitchers reminiscent Ulugh Beg' jade one.

Under Shah Tahmasp, inlays disappeared rapidly, as witnessed by a group of candlesticks in the form of pillars. On the other hand, one notices the appearance of coloured paste (red, black, green) to replace the multicolouration previously supplied by the inlays of silver and gold. One notes also the beginning of steelwork, in particular by piercings, to actualize the elements of plating of doors and of standards.

Hardstone carvings[edit]

Persian hardstone carvings are most often datable to the 16th century. There are a series of pitchers with globular bellies, mounted on a little ring-shaped base and having wide, short necks. Two of these (one in black jade inlaid with gold, the other in white jade) are inscribed with the name of Ismail I. The handle is in the shape of a dragon, which betrays a Chinese influence, but this type of pitcher comes in fact directly from the preceding period: its prototype is the pitcher of Ulough Beg. We also know of blades and handles of knives in jade, often inlaid with gold wire and ingraved.

Hardstone serves also to make jewels to inlay in metal objects, such as the great zinc bottle inlaid with gold, rubies and turquoise dated to the reign of Ismail and conserved at the museum of Topkapi in Istanbul.


Fath Ali Shah in 1798, painted by Mihr 'Ali.
Main article: Qajar art

Qajar art refers to the art, architecture, and art-forms of the Qajar dynasty of the late Persian Empire, which lasted from 1781 to 1925.

The boom in artistic expression that occurred during the Qajar era was the fortunate side effect of the period of relative peace that accompanied the rule of Agha Muhammad Khan and his descendants. With his ascension, the bloody turmoil that had been the eighteenth century in Persia came to a close, and made it possible for the peacetime arts to again flourish.

Qajar painting[edit]

Most notably, Qajar art is recognizable for its distinctive style of portraiture. The roots of traditional Qajar painting can be found in the style of painting that arose during the preceding Safavid empire. During this time, there was a great deal of European influence on Persian culture, especially in the arts of the royalty and noble classes. European art was undergoing a period of realism and this can be seen in the depiction of objects especially by Qajar artists. The European influence is very well evidenced in the preëminent position and prestige of oil painting. While oil paintings had been par for the course during previous periods of Persian art, it was the influence of the European masters, like Rubens and Rembrandt, the true masters of oil portraiture, that raised it to the highest level. Heavy application of paint and dark, rich, saturated colors are elements of Qajar painting that owe their influences directly to the European style.

While the depiction of inanimate objects and still lifes is seen to be very realistic in Qajar painting, the depiction of human beings is decidedly idealised. This is especially evident in the portrayal of Qajar royalty, where the subjects of the paintings are very formulaically placed and situated to achieve a desired effect.

Kamal-ol-molk (1845 - 1940) came from a family of court painters, but also trained with a painter who had studied in Europe. After a career at court, he visited Europe in 1898, at the age of 47, staying for some four years. He was one of the artists who introduced a more European style to Persian painting.

Royal portraiture[edit]

Most famous of the Qajar artworks are the portraits that were made of the various Persian Shahs. Each ruler, and many of their sons and other relatives, commissioned official portraits of themselves either for private use or public display. The most famous of these are of course the myriad portraits which were painted of Fath Ali Shah Qajar, who, with his narrow waist, long black bifurcated beard and deepset eyes, has come to exemplify the Romantic image of the great Oriental Ruler. Many of these paintings were by the artist Mihr 'Ali. While the portraits were executed at various points throughout the life of the Shah, they adhere to a canon in which the distinctive features of the ruler are emphasized. Portraits exist of Fath Ali Shah in a very wide assortment of situations, from the armor-clad warrior king to the flower smelling gentleman, but all are similar in their depiction of the Shah, differing only slightly, usually due to the specific artist of the portrait. It is only appropriate that this particular Shah be so immortalized in this style, as it was under his rule as the second Qajar shah that the style truly flourished. One reason for this were the stronger and stronger diplomatic ties that the Qajar rulers were nurturing with European powers.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Langer, William L., ed. (1972). An Encyclopedia of World History (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company. p. 17. ISBN 0-395-13592-3. 
  2. ^ a b Aruz, Joan (1992). The Royal City of Susa: Ancient Near Eastern Treasures in the Louvre. New York: Abrams. p. 26. 
  3. ^ Aruz, Joan (1992). The Royal City of Susa: Ancient Near Eastern Treasures in the Louvre. New York: Abrams. p. 29. 
  4. ^ "Luristan" remains the usual spelling in art history for the bronzes, as for example in EI, Muscarella, Frankfort, and current museum practice
  5. ^ Muscarella, 112–113
  6. ^ Muscarella, 115–116; EI I
  7. ^ Muscarella, 116–117; EI I
  8. ^ EI, I
  9. ^ Frankfort, 343-48; Muscarella, 117 is less confident that they were not settled.
  10. ^ EI I
  11. ^ Frankfort, 344-45
  12. ^ Muscarella, 125–126
  13. ^ Edward Lipiński, Karel van Lerberghe, Antoon Schoors; Karel Van Lerberghe; Antoon Schoors (1995). Immigration and emigration within the ancient Near East. Peeters Publishers. p. 119. ISBN 978-90-6831-727-5. 
  14. ^ Canepa, 53 and throughout. Canepa, 63–64, 76–78 on siting
  15. ^ Luschey; Canepa, 55–57
  16. ^ Herrmann and Curtis
  17. ^ Luschey
  18. ^ Herrmann and Curtis
  19. ^ Cotterell, 162; Canepa, 57–59, 65–68
  20. ^ Cotterell, 162; Canepa, 57–59, 65–68
  21. ^ Herrmann and Curtis; Canepa, 62, 65–68
  22. ^ Vanden Berghe #27-29
  23. ^ Herrmann and Curtis; Canepa, 74–76
  24. ^ Herrmann and Curtis
  25. ^ Herrmann and Curtis
  26. ^ Canepa, 59–61, 68–73
  27. ^ Downey; Canepa, 59–60
  28. ^ Herrmann and Curtis
  29. ^ Vanden Berghe, Louis, Reliefs rupestres de l' Iran ancien, 1983, Brussels, per online summary of his list here
  30. ^ Rostovtzeff: Dura and the Problem of Parthian Art
  31. ^ H. T. Bakker (1987). Iconography of Religions. p. 7. 
  32. ^ a b Fergus Millar (1993). The Roman Near East, 31 B.C.-A.D. 337. p. 329. 
  33. ^ Nishapur: Pottery of the Early Islamic Period,Wilkinson, Charles K. (1973)
  34. ^
  35. ^ McWilliams, Mary. "Bowl Inscribed with a Saying of 'Ali ibn Abi Talib". Harvard Art Museums. Retrieved 7 July 2015. 
  36. ^ Volov, Lis (1966). "Plaited Kufic on Samanid Epigraphic Pottery". Ars Orientalis 6 (1966): 107-33. 
  37. ^ "UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity". Retrieved 9 August 2015. 
  38. ^ "UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity". Retrieved 9 August 2015. 
  39. ^ Gruber, throughout; see Welch, 95-97 for one of the most famous examples, illustrated below
  40. ^ In the terminiology of Western illuminated manuscripts, "illumination" usually covers both narrative scenes and decorative elements.
  41. ^ Canby (1993), 83
  42. ^


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