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The Iranian art of painting continued in the early Hejira centuries in the form of impressions on metal vessels, cloth designs, and most importantly on murals, samples of which can still be found in the Khorāsān region, including Panj Kont, Afrāsiāb, and Neyshābur. The impact of this art is quite visible on the murals of the Umayyad palaces such as the Omreh Palace built by Valid I (94 AH/713 AD) and the Abbasid palaces. Unfortunately, due to their vulnerability and as a result of natural calamities or the foreign invasions and their subsequent destruction of libraries there is no trace of paintings on the papers and illustrated manuscripts of the early Islamic centuries. Nevertheless, there are numerous historical reports pointing out towards the existence of illustrated books in the great libraries of those times, thereby proving that the trend of painting on paper also existed during those days.

Archeological findings support the reports of some writers such as Hamzah Esfahāni who have claimed to have witnessed illustrated books of the Sassanid period in which various colors including gold and silver had been employed. The same tradition of illustration was carried to as far as China by the Manicheans who had been excommunicated and expelled during the Sassanid Era. In the excavations of Turfān some remains of Māni’s book, the “Arzhang” belonging to the 2nd and 3rd Centuries AH/8th and 9th Centuries AD have been unearthed. It has been said that when a large number of books were burnt on the orders of the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad in 311 AH/923 AD, streams of gold and silver began to flow from among the ashes. It was this very tradition of book illustration and illumination that found its way from Khorāsān to Baghdad and led to the popularization of book illustration in the courts of the Abbasid caliphs in Mesopotamia, and laid the foundations for illustration, painting, and miniature-work in many Islamic territories.

The motifs on the Iranian enameled and golden ceramics of the early Hejira centuries as well as their connection with historical themes such as scenes from Ferdowsi’s “Shāhnāmeh” and Nizāmi’s “Khamsah” are evident proof of the prevalence of similar paintings on walls as well as ceramic and metal vessels and book illustrations.

The establishment of the Ilkhānid rule in Iran paved the path for a fresh trend in Iranian miniatures and paintings. The books that have survived from the early Ilkhānid period – while they were still alien to Iranian culture - are mainly in the fields of medicine, zoology, and astronomy, the trend of illustration in which already existed in Iran. The influence of the bilateral relationship that existed between Iran and China can be observed in the paintings of this period both in terms of design as well as technique.

Innovations in the style of the illustration of the “Shāhnāmeh” marked the beginning of a trend that resulted in the return of a predominantly Iranian style of painting. According to Dūst Mohammad, who had written a preface for Bahrām Mirzā Safavi’s book, the “Moraqqa’” in 951 AH/1544 AD, the emergence of a great artist like Ahmad Musā was a turning point in the art of painting in Iran. A contemporary of the Ilkhānid ruler, Abu Sa’id, Ahmad Musā successfully tried to cleanse Iranian art from the influence of Chinese elements that had permeated it as a result of the Mongol domination over Iran.

In the 8th and 9th Centuries AH/14th and 15th Centuries AD, Baghdad, the capital of Sultān Ahmad Jalāyeri, witnessed the emergence of a competent artist by the name of “Junayd”. His everlasting masterpiece, “Homai and Homāyan” – based on a poem composed by Khājavi Kermāni – that was created by him in the year 799 AH/1397 AD marked the beginning of a new school of painting in Iran. This exquisite piece of art is presently housed in the British Museum. The illustrated manuscript of Nizāmi’s “Khosrow and Shirin” (c. 822 AH/1419 AD), housed in the Freer Gallery of Art, also probably belongs to Junayd. Like the works of Ahmad Musā, the works of the court artist, Junayd, marked a fresh pinnacle in the field of Iranian painting, the impact of which lasted for several centuries to come.

As a result of Tamerlane’s invasion of Iran, a large number of Iranian artists including painters gathered in Samarqand from every nook and corner of Iran. Surviving evidences prove that during that period the art of painting was used on large cloths, murals, and book illustration. Among the schools of art, the Shiraz Art School was still active in the early Timurid era, but book illustration prospered in an amzaing manner across Iran during the reign of Shahrokh and his descendents – including Bāysonqor Mirzā – and particularly in Khorāsān.

In the second half of the 9th Century AH/15th Century AD and during the reign of Sultān Hosayn Bāyqarā, the last Timurid king of Iran (ruled 873-912 AH/1468-1506 AD), when Amir ‘Ali Shir Navāi was the vizier, a new movement surfaced in Iranian painting, and particularly in Herat. Some manuscripts of the “Tārikh-e Tabari”, Ferdowsi’s “Shāhnāmeh” and Sa’di’s “Bustān” are among the works of the first decade of his rule. A new trend that emerged in the field of painting during this period was that the names and at times even the designations of the painters began to appear on the paintings and historical documents. Shāh Mozaffar, the son of Mansur, Mirak, Hāji Mohammad, and Qāsem ‘Ali are among the famous artists of this period.

The most prestigious of them all was Kamāl al-Din Behzād, whose works and school, marked a new beginning in the history of Iranian painting. Powerful sketching as well as a subtle and skillful application of color are the two important features of his paintings. Moreover, he exhibited a keen adherence to the principles of perspective, particularly in the depiction of buildings and nature.

The emergence of Shāh Esmāil, the establishment of the Safavid Dynasty, as well as the transfer of the capital to Tabriz, once again, turned the city into a center of art. Shāh Esmāil, who was a patron of art and artists besides being a warrior, transferred Behzād to Tabriz and appointed him in charge of the royal library, a post that Behzād held until his death in 942 AH/1535 AD.

The artists of those times gathered in the library of Shāh Esmāil and his son, Shāh Tahmāsb, who was also interested in painting and was himself a student of the renowned artist, Sultān Mohammad. The students of Behzād along with some other artists such as Shaykhzādeh, Qāsem ‘Ali, Dūst Mohammad, Sultān Mohammad, Mir Mosavvar, Mir Sayyed ‘Ali, and others established a second school of painting during the Safavid Era in Tabriz.

Another development in the history of Iranian painting during this period was the migration of a number of renowned Iranian artists such as Mir Sayyed ‘Ali and Khājeh Abd al-Samad Shirāzi to India, where they joined the court of the Indian Mogul emperors creating the Indo-Iranian school of painting. From the second half of 10th Century AH onwards, Āqā Rezā, the son of ‘Ali Asghar Kāshani, added life into the earlier rigid style of painting by including natural scenes and introduced a new trend and movement in the style of painting of his times, and especially in the techniques of portrait painting, by depicting greater detail of attire and facial expression. Some of the most important works of this artist are his illustrations of the manuscript, the “Qisas al-Anbiyā” (Stories of the Prophets) which is presently housed in the Paris National Library. 

During the reign of Shāh Abbās the Great, the quality of the illustrations of the manuscripts deteriorated to some extent, and at times, they were nothing but clear imitations of the works of the earlier periods. A manuscript of the “Shāhnāmeh” illustrated in the year 1023 AH/1614 AD that is preserved in the New York Public Library is a clear instance of the deterioration in the quality of illustrations of this period. Rezā Abbāsi, the illustrious artist of this period is one of the most renowned Iranian painters to whom a large number of works have been attributed. However, there is skepticism over whether many of the inferior works actually belonged to him since he had laid the foundation for a new style in Iranian painting, the influence of which is still more or less visible. Powerful sketching, flowing strokes, elegant drawing, softness of color, and the depiction of the details of the attire of his subjects are some of the most important features of his works. Moreover, the paintings of Rezā Abbāsi include one or several portraits or full-length figures, the postures and movements of which are very palpable.

With the downfall of the Safavid Dynasty, the art of painting in Iran suffered a setback and never again managed to regain its earlier glory.

During the 13th Century AH/19th Century AD a new style emerged in Iranian painting and a number of artists and a large number of renowned painters surfaced who were more or less influenced by the European school of painting. Portrait artists such as Mehr ‘Ali, Abdollāh Khān, Mirzā Bābā and Sayyed Mirzā are some of the artists who painted beautiful canvas portraits of Fath ‘Ali Shāh Qājār and his family members in royal splendor and magnificence, dressed in elaborate attire. During this period while the illustration of manuscripts did flourish to some extent, owing to the enthusiasm shown by foreign buyers, miniature paintings and depictions of flowers, birds, and sceneries as well as collage tableaus flourished to a great extent. In the second half of the century, a number of renowned artists like Āqā Bozorg, Lotf ‘Ali Shirāzi, Abu al-Hasan Ghaffāri (Sani al-Mulk), Esmāil Jalāyer, Mohammad Esmāil Naqqāshbāshi as well as scores of other artists who worked on canvas, paper, pen-stands, book covers, boxes, glass, and other materials emerged. The last and the most distinguished among this generation of artists was Mohammad Ghaffāri (famous as Kamāl al-Molk), who continued creating great works of art even after the downfall of the Qājār Dynasty.

* source: Semsar , Mohammad Hasan " Iran Entry " The Great Islamic Encyclopedia . Ed. Kazem Musavi Bojnourdi.Tehran: The Center of Great Islamic Encyclopaedia , 1989-, V.10 , pp.642- 646

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