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: Gift of Persian Miniatures


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The exquisite art of Persian painting, hitherto unrepresented in the collections of the Art Institute, has been brilliantly introduced through the gift of five Persian miniatures from the late Charles C. Webber and Mrs. Webber. Dating from the late thirteenth to the mid-sixteenth centuries, these paintings offer a delightful means of becoming acquainted with an art that combines sumptuousness and delicacy with an elegance that has never been surpassed. They are displayed for the first time in an exhibition of Persian art that includes a group of miniatures from Mrs. Webber’s collection, pottery from the collection of Alfred F. Pillsbury, and a group of miniatures, metalwork, and pottery lent by Nasli M. Heeramaneck.The miniatures in the Webber gift include a leaf from a dispersed Manafi al-Hayavan of the late thirteenth century, a leaf from Rashid ad-Din’s History of the World of the late fourteenth century, a miniature of two lovers from the fifteenth century, a garden scene based on a romantic poem, also of the fifteenth century, and a miniature of a king picnicking from a Nizami manuscript lent by Mrs. Webber and Mr. Heeramaneck, they give an extraordinarily vivid impression of Persian painting.For many of those who are meeting Persian painting for the first time it will be difficult to grasp the fact that these charming bibelots actually represent painting in Persia during the periods when it exhibited its greatest development and perfection. So small, one will think. They count for little on the wall. They were never meant to hang upon a wall. They were integral parts of the great histories, epics, and romances that furnished inspiration to five centuries of Persian calligraphers, illustrators, and painters. It is from books of this kind, many of them broken up and dispersed leaf by precious leaf throughout the collections of the world, that Persian painting has become known. It is not wholly fair to judge it thus removed from its context, but even isolated as one sees it now it gives an exciting glimpse of the glories of Persian painting. It is to be regretted that the record goes no further back than the period of Arab domination and that even so examples of the early period are rare. But the destructive hordes that swept Persia over a period of centuries obliterated much that would have thrown light on the continuity of Persian art.Standing athwart the road from east to west Persia was, from early times, a melting pot of ideas, art, and religion. The civilization of the east flowed through it, putting an indelible stamp upon it. Yet despite the diverse influences periodically exerted upon it, Persia perpetuated a national tradition in art and thought. The foreign influences brought to bear upon it were translated by the Persians, in their eternal search for the most subtle magnificence of expression, into arts that come nearer than those of any other time or country to enthralling the beholder.When the Achaemenid kingdom was overthrown by Alexander in 330 B.C. the Persian spirit, loathing the Greek overlordship, went underground. Thereafter no native art of importance was produced until the dynasty of the Sasanian kings (226-652), when Persian artists were again free to create in an atmosphere compatible with their peculiar genius. Certain echoes of Coptic Egypt, of Assyria and Babylonia were evident in the arts of this period, the descriptions of great painted hunting scenes recalling especially the arts of the latter two civilizations. It was at this time, too, during the third century, that a new and vital influence was exerted upon Persian art. This was the impetus given to it by the prophet Mani from Iraq. Founder of the Manichaean religion, Mani is sometimes called the father of Persian painting. No trace of his work has remained, but fragments of Manichaean books have been recovered, and it is known that he encouraged and practiced the art of book illustration, considering it a powerful means of spreading his religion. Under his tutelage there grew up a talented school which, from all accounts, produced some of the most lavishly beautiful books ever created.When the Arabs conquered the Persian Empire in the seventh century, Persian art of the Sasanian period suffered a fate that was to become all too common. Almost everything was wiped out by the fanatical Mohammedans, the tenets of whose faith permitted no representations of human beings or of animals, both beloved subjects of Sasanian Persia. It was the Mohammedan belief that artists, in depicting man or beast, were usurping the prerogatives of Allah. No living thing could be portrayed by artists under their faith. Their art became, therefore, a non-representational art. That is not to say that it ceased entirely under their rule. The art of the book flourished especially, for the Mohammedans were, above everything else, great bibliophiles. Many extravagantly beautiful copies of the Koran were made on stained vellum against which elegant Kufic characters stood out in brilliant gold. The lavish character of these volumes was enhanced by illuminated decorations of intricate design.The measure of Mohammedan patronage and inspiration in this field is attested by the fact that the great princely libraries of Muslim Persia are known to have contained thousands of volumes, and this at a time when fifty manuscripts constituted a noteworthy library in Europe. This passionate love of books was a natural corollary of the Muslim belief that learning is one of the noblest of man’s occupations. Hand in hand with it went the reverence of these peoples—Persian and Mohammedan alike—for the art of calligraphy.The hand of Mohammed was heavy on Persia, but it, no more than the Greek subjection that had long antedated it, was able to destroy the inimitable quality of the Persians. In defiance of the Mohammedan law against representation of living things, but quietly and circumspectly, the Persian tradition flowed on. Numerous great Muslim princes were accomplices in sustaining this tradition. Feeling free to ignore the proscription against representational art, they ordered for their personal libraries secular works in which the Persian artist was free to exercise his gift for portraying battle scenes and romance in the decorative, balanced style characteristic of Persian art. It was during this period, about 1010, under the rule of the Abbasid Caliphate at Bagdad (750-1258), that the Shah Nama, the great Persian epic of the legendary kings, was completed by the poet Firdausi. During the following century Nizami wrote the metrical romances which, with the Shah Nama, were to be the inspiration of countless painters, most of them unknown, in succeeding centuries. Both poets sought inspiration for their work in the stories of Sasanian kings and princes, but where the illustrations for Firdausi’s epic were frequently bloody and tumultuous battle scenes, those for Nizami’s poems called forth a more idyllic type of work in which the Persian live for romance, garden scenes, and all the beauties of nature had full scope.During the Abbasid period, however, illustration was chiefly in demand for two special types of books: scientific works which required illustrations, and two widely popular Arabic classics: a translation of the Sanskrit Fables of Bidpai, and the adventures of one Abn Zayd by Hariri. From the point of view of painting the former is interesting for the sympathy with which the animals have been depicted, and the latter for the pictures of numerous details of the life of the time. Neither, however, reveals the spirit that was to emerge in Persian painting with the advent of the Mongols.When Genghis Khan swooped upon Persia there ensued a savage destruction of lives and works of art that has been equaled only in our own day. As Sasanian art had been destroyed by the Arabs the art of Muslim Persia was destroyed by the Mongols. Yet for all its wanton laying waste of life and beauty, the Mongol invasion seems to have created a new spark of life in Persian art. The Persians had always extravagantly admired things Chinese, and the artists and craftsmen spared by Genghis Khan developed a new art in which the Chinese influence was strong yet in no way dominated the Persian genius for design and color. Painting became more decorative, and among the works in which the new spirit manifested itself were the Manafi al-Hayavan of Ibn Bakhtishu and Rashid ad-Din’s History of the World.Leaves from both of these works are included in the Webber gift, and both reveal the Chinese influence that had quickened the Persian spirit. The painting of the stag from the late thirteenth-century manuscript of Bakhtishu’s Manafi al-Hayavan is a delightfully humorous performance which would not have been possible before. The Chinese influence is seen in the cloud forms so decoratively and spiritedly introduced in the corners. The color scheme of fawn, green, brown, and flame-color is subdued but effective.A similarly low color harmony is used in the miniature from a fourteenth-century manuscript of Rashid ad-Din’s History of the World. The painting depicts the incident in which the dog, Black Lightning, drives a pack of wolves from a flock of sheep. The blue and grey wolves are like drifting shadows against a taupe sky fringed with Chinese cloud forms. Black Lightning rushes after them from a range of blue mountains reminiscent of those in Sung paintings.Both of these miniatures possess a lively and animated quality that had been rare in the work of the Abbasid School, but it was not until Persia had been laid waste by yet another invader, Tamerlane, that Persian painting experienced a new flowering in which grace, elegance, and beauty were represented in their most perfect form. It does not appear that Tamerlane himself was particularly interested in painting, but he spared—and took with him to his court at Samarkand—the most skilled artists, craftsmen, and builders to be found in Persia. Under him and his successors, calligraphers, painters, illuminators, workers in gold and precious stones, combined to produce manuscripts of unparalleled magnificence.Two miniatures of the Timurid period are included in the Webber gift: a Scene of Romance depicting two lovers under a tree, and a Garden Scene with two princes and their attendants, possibly of the Shiraz school. Both are exquisite in color and design, the former revealing, in the branches of the tree that extends beyond the border of the miniature proper, the growing freedom and importance of the painter. Both are supremely decorative, and in them one sees the Persian love for nature—the flowering trees, the delicately drawn flowers, the birds perching in the trees—in all its lyric charm.The impetus of the Timurid period, as well as its greatest painter, Bizahd, carried over into the Safavid dynasty (1502-1736), during which the latest miniature in the Webber gift was painted. It is an animated scene of a king picnicking from a sixteenth-century manuscript of Nizami. The details of the king receiving a book, a vendor weighing fruit, a servant skinning a calf, and groups of guests chatting against a rising series of blue, green, and pale mauve hills from which gay clumps of flowers spring, are enchanting. The precise grouping of the figures, the poetic charm of the landscape, and the rich colors, so judiciously balanced, are characteristic of this highly sophisticated and last great school of Persian painting. In this example the trees and flowering shrubs spilling over into a border decorated in gold with beasts and foliage are but an added refinement to an art that has reached its zenith.That this art is now represented in the permanent collection is the greatest good fortune that has come to the Art Institute in a long time. That it is introduced in the distinguished company of miniatures from the collections of Mrs. Webber and Mr. Heeramaneck provides a strong incentive for a further knowledge of Persian painting, through which all the magic of Persia itself comes close.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Scene of Romance. Persian miniature, XV century
    Gift of the late Charles C. Webber and Mrs. Webber
  2. The Stag. Miniature from a dispersed Manafi Al-Hayavan
    Persian, late XIII century. Gift of the late Charles C. Webber
  3. Black Lightning. Miniature from a manuscript of Rashid ad-Din’s History of the World. Persian, late XIV century. Webber gift
  4. A King Picnicking. Miniature from a Nizami manuscript. Persian
    Middle XVI century. Gift of the late Charles C. Webber and Mrs. Webber
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Source: "Gift of Persian Miniatures," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 34, no. 14 (April, 1945): 46-51.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009