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: Persian Potteries in the Alfred F. Pillsbury Collection


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
For his generosity in bequeathing to the museum his magnificent collections of Chinese art the Institute will be forever indebted to Alfred F. Pillsbury. Yet the importance of his contribution to the Far Eastern section does not overshadow his bequests in other fields, notably in that of Persian ceramics. His collection of Persian potteries, numbering some fifty examples, constitutes an invaluable addition to the existing collection. Consisting chiefly of the splendid products of Rayy and Kashan from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries, it completes the picture of Persian ceramics in the museum’s collection, wherein emphasis is on examples of the earlier period, and gives a well-rounded view of this most ingratiating of all Persian arts. It provides, moreover, an unparalleled approach to an understanding of the life and spirit of Islamic Persia.That such an understanding should be reached through one of the most fragile of all media is cause for wonder. One might have expected that these bits of clay would long since have been ground to dust. Miraculously, they have survived, and if that survival has in the majority of cases entailed the painstaking fitting together of innumerable small pieces one accepts gratefully the fact that they have been made whole again. Restoration has been so skillfully accomplished that it rarely impinges on the consciousness of the observer. A spontaneous delight in the felicitous handling of clay is the immediate and lasting impression. The Persian potter developed his basic theme with such taste, such balance, such gaiety an insouciance, that it is doubtful if his total achievement has ever been surpassed. One is almost automatically aware of this and responds to it. The Persian did not have the sheer and somewhat glacial perfection of the Chinese ceramist; he had something rare: an overall understanding of and sympathy with the basic material of his art. He respected it and never pushed it beyond its limitations. The clay itself seems to have been his first concern, and in the beautiful and always suitable forms into which he shaped it one senses an intimate, almost sensuous rapport between the artist and his material. Having achieved a shape in all ways consonant with his material, he decorated it in an inspired fashion in a variety of techniques. Color and glazes, brilliantly handled, added the final touch of perfection to his product. Each step in the process was vitally important to the whole, and it is this concern with all the contributing factors that makes Persian pottery the serene, harmonious, balanced art that it is.Such an end was not attained all at once. It was not for more than two centuries after the Arab conquest that the Persian potters began to sense the possibilities of clay. Although they had long been exposed to Chinese influence, their own achievements were on the whole pedestrian. Neither color nor glazes had been exploited by them and their interest in form was unaroused. In the ninth century, inspired by a growing demand for pottery of all kinds, they began to exercise the skill, imagination, and wit that was to reach a climax in the lavish and sophisticated wares of the twelfth century.Among the earliest of these were a series of shallow bowls in a creamy white ware painted in cobalt, a group of deeper bowls and plates with incised decoration, and vessels decorated with luster painting. The first and last, dating from the early eleventh centuries, are represented in the Institute’s collection. The incised style, in a bowl dating from the tenth century, is the earliest example in the Pillsbury collection. The white slip, applied to a reddish body, is here decorated with a four-pointed star. The intervening spaces are filled with curling palmettes. A yellowish, transparent glaze covers the interior of the bowl, which is finished at the rim with a narrow band of dark green. Examples of this ware, found in Persia at Rayy, are comparatively rare.An extension of the incised technique is to be found in a group of bowls with spirited, almost brutal designs made in Kurdistan in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Known as the champlevé technique, it was used, among other places, in the Garrus area. An example in the Pillsbury collection illustrates the powerfully executed designs which compensate, in this ware, for the primitive nature of the potting. It is a bowl decorated with four large roundels framing jaunty birds against a ground of arabesque foliation. Between each of these compartments is a smaller roundel containing a five-petal rosette. The low, flat relief of the design was achieved by cutting the slip away from the background, leaving the birds, rosettes, and foliation standing out in a lighter tone from the reddish brown of the ground. The surface is covered with a heavy cream-colored glaze.During the ninth century the Persian potters first used what was to become one of their most brilliant techniques, that of luster painting. It seems altogether probable that this method was developed in Persia, although the place of origin is still disputed. Its discovery stemmed, probably, from the Islamic prohibition of the use of gold and silver. In an attempt to approximate the effects of gold, Persian potters discovered that an application of metallic salts to a vessel already glazed and fired would result, on a second firing in a muffle kiln, in a brilliant luster of varying tones of gold. This first early type of luster painting, illustrated in a small, late tenth-century bowl in the Institute’s collection, became, in the twelfth century, the greatest glory of Persian ceramic art.The early painted, incised, and luster-painted vessels, admirable as they may be, are but a prelude to the magnificence and charm of those produced during the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, when Persian ceramics reached the height of their perfection. In Rayy this perfection is most dazzlingly expressed in wares decorated with luster painting. Employed now in a monumental style reminiscent of the great traditions of the past, it displayed a freedom and power far removed from the first early examples. The chief characteristic of the style is its dependence on a single large-scale figure usually reversed in white against a rich luster background of broadly conceived foliation. The figure may be a person or an animal, but in either case it is done in the grand style. In all examples the decoration is beautifully adapted to the form of the vessel. An element of serenity in the large design is contributed by the simple patterns of the clothing worn by the personages represented. Ignoring the exquisite textile designs of the period, the potters clothes their figures in fabrics decorated only with small spots, streaks, or little dots, the latter frequently arranged in groups of three.This style was continued on smaller bowls like that with the figure of a lute player in the Pillsbury collection. It is an expression on a reduced scale of the grand manner, but it is notable that the feeling of monumentality is preserved despite the modest size of the vessel. The finale of the monumental luster style is also to be seen in the Pillsbury collection. It occurs on a deep plate with two figures, presumably representing Humay and Humayun, in attitudes of restrained emotion against the characteristic background of boldly drawn foliation. The treatment of the figures heralds the miniature style of luster painting.The manner reflects in turn the increasing emphasis on refinement of detail that was stimulated by the activities of the miniature painters of the time. It is exemplified in a long-spouted ewer, inspired by a metal form, in the Pillsbury collection. The design scheme is here one of compartments flanked by boldly outlined X-shaped panels of foliation. Each compartment contains the figure of a woman, clothed in the characteristic small-patterned robe, reserved in white against a luster ground. This example dates from the late twelfth century.A further brilliant technique introduced at this time, and possibly the most exquisite of all, was that of overglaze painting in polychrome. Although it flourished in several places, it is from Rayy and Kashan that the best examples come. Both are represented in the Pillsbury collection, the loveliest coming from Rayy. In this style, the body of the vessel was covered with an opaque creamy white or turquoise glaze and fired. The decoration was then added in a variety of colors, including dark and grayed blues, turquoise, dark red, aubergine, green, lavender, black, white, and gray. Gold was often used to heighten the lavishness of the scheme, and it is to the credit of the Persian potter that he never permitted it to go beyond the bounds of good taste. The range of subjects was as wide as the colors. Horsemen, princesses, personages, polo players, hunters, and delicate abstract designs adorned these spirited wares. A charming example in the Pillsbury collection is the fluted bowl with a princess enthroned between two attendants. Two roguish angels hover above and a pair of harpies confront each other below. Around the rim is a series of eight engaging seated figures set apart form each other by delicate escutcheons. The painting is in red, blue, black, soft green, pale rose, gray, and black on a white ground, the whole touched sparingly with gold. A later example, possibly from Rayy, is notable for the infectious quality of a solemnly exuberant rider on a walking horse. The gay figures seated in compartments separated by pseudo kufic bands are in the holiday spirit too. The bolder Kashan style of polychrome overglaze painting appears in a bowl with the figure of a mounted hunter attacking a fantastic lion with his sword. The execution is broader and more vigorous, and the whole conception more virile, than in the examples from Rayy.Several other examples from Kashan, the most important ceramic center in Persia during the medieval period, are included in the Pillsbury collection. One of these is a late twelfth-century bowl with a beautiful lapis lazuli glaze. The only decoration is a band of conventionalized foliation about the rim. It represents the carved and reticulated technique in which the walls of the vessel were pierced and then closed with glaze so that the light could shine through and emphasize the carved design. The celebrated Kashan black-painted ware is illustrated in a stunning bowl of radial design. In this instance the black panels painted on the white slip alternate with segments filled with a sinuous, flowing leafy spray. The colorless, transparent glaze is dazzling against the strong black and white. Another example, a broad, shallow bowl painted in black with blue glaze, is decorated with two women conversing in a frame of gracefully drawn foliage. This is a composition of great suavity and charm, and one which gains enormously from the somber color scheme.A more spirited example is a straight-sided fourteenth-century bowl painted in gold luster with radial panels. These enclose alternately various animals, dashingly adorned with spots, and broad, chain-like arabesques. This piece, which has been attributed to the Sultanabad region, reflects the Kashan influence.Other wares in the collection illustrate a variety of techniques. The black and turquoise champlevé of Rayy is seen in two bowls with the design in flat relief, and a Kashan plate is decorated with a sparkling network of leaves and flying birds in gilt and red earth on a lapis blue ground. Two bowls with interlaced arabesques in gold relief on a turquoise ground and a group of monochromes in turquoise, lavender, lapis blue, and green reveal the Persian achievement in these fields. The whole is an ensemble of singing color and beautifully organized design that enchants the eye and refreshes the jaded spirit.Referenced Works of ArtFrontispiece. Bowl with polychrome overglaze decoration (detail)
Persian, Rayy, XIII century.
  1. Bowl, incised white glaze with green rim, Persian, X century.
  2. Bowl decorated with luster painting
    Persian, XII century.
  3. Long-spouted ewer, derived from a metal form, decorated with luster painting.
    Persian, Rayy, late XII century.
  4. Bowl with carved and pierced decoration under a lapis lazuli blue glaze.
    Persian, Kashan, late XII century.
  5. Bowl with polychrome overglaze decoration.
    Persian, Rayy, XIII century.
  6. Bowl with underglaze painting in black.
    Persian, Kashan, XIII century.
  7. Bowl with polychrome overglaze decoration.
    Persian, Kashan, XIII century.
  8. Bowl with painting in black under a blue glaze.
    Persian, Kashan, XIII century.
  9. Bowl with champlevé decoration under a cream-colored glaze.
    Persian, Garrus, XI-XII century.
  10. Bowl with decoration in luster painting.
    Persian, Sultanabad district, XIV century.
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Source: "Persian Potteries in the Alfred F. Pillsbury Collection," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 41, no. 23 (June, 1952): 114-124.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009