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: The Margaret McMillan Webber Bequest of Persian Paintings


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The arts of Asia, already richly represented in the permanent collections, have been given further interest and importance through a bequest of Persian paintings from Margaret McMillan Webber. This distinguished collection was left to the Art Institute in memory of Mrs. Webber's mother, Katherine Kittredge McMillan. Comprising thirty-three paintings, ten examples of illumination and calligraphy, and three drawings, it gives scope and substance to the picture of Persian art in the Institute.The unique pleasure offered by Persian painting is present to a high degree in the miniatures in the Webber Collection. An art to be savored, as all beautiful and exquisite things are savored for themselves alone, it can be enjoyed with none of the doubt and uneasiness that occasionally impinge upon experience with other arts. This is entertainment, a kind of magic vision, in which the spectator is invited to participate by artists unsurpassed in the practice of magic through design and decoration. In essence a superior kind of illustration, it is an art completely removed from reality because it is based on great epics and romantic poems and heroic achievement; because, like other Asiatic painting, it recognizes no shadow; because its drama is based not on emotion, but on a dazzling manipulation of color and elements of design. Thus one observes with delight all the happenings contrived upon the narrow stage of Persian paintings, and with no more than objective interest the gory events sometimes depicted. And all this within a compass so restricted that one may be deceived into thinking it of no great moment and so relinquish, unwittingly, a rare and precious experience.Persian miniatures do not clamor for attention; theirs is a subtle appeal compounded of sophistication and naïveté, of color and pattern so knowingly exploited that the perfection of their relationship is not immediately apparent. Such paintings were meant to be known intimately; to be held in the hand in the beautifully bound and illuminated volumes that made the princely libraries of Muslim Persia store-houses of wealth at a time when ownership of half a hundred volumes was considered noteworthy in Europe. They were integral parts of the literary masterpieces copied and recopied for the great Turkish and Mongol patrons of Persian artists. It is from books of this kind, broken up and dispersed leaf by leaf throughout Europe and America, that Persian painting has become known in the West. Although it suffered a temporary eclipse following the Arab conquest, paintings reflecting the Sasanian tradition were produced during the pre-Mongol period.The earliest examples extant are attributed to the Abbasid school. They are thirteenth-century illustrations for the fables of the Hindu poet Bidpai and for an Arabic version of Dioscorides Materia Medica. Four leaves from the latter, depicting medicinal plants, are included in the Webber Collection. Although of minor artistic importance, they are interesting as early examples of Islamic book illustration.Persian miniature painting, as it is best known today, begins with the Mongol conquest in 1258. Fragments of wall painting and ceramics of the Rhages type decorated with court scenes and personages offer the only hint of Persian painting under Seljuk Turks. With the Mongol conquest abundant examples began to appear, and it is interesting to note the degree to which they were influenced by Chinese art. This is displayed in Mongol manuscripts of Bakhtishus's Manafi al Hayawan and Rashid ad Din's history of the world, Jami at Tawarikh. The latter, one of the most important of the fourteenth century, played a major part in the development of Persian painting. Four miniatures from a fourteenth-century copy add considerably to the interest of the Webber Collection. Of these, the scene of Moses Prevailing over Pharaoh is the most unusual and effective. A bold color scheme of scarlet, gold, green, blue, and orange is handled with great skill in a vigorous and open composition that distinguishes the miniatures in this group.The most popular manuscript of the fourteenth century was Firdausi's great epic, the Shah Nama, relating the exploits of legendary and early kings of Persia. Numerous copies, large and small, were made under Mongol domination. From one of the small, precious, and most typically Persian in style, come four fine miniatures in the Webber Collection: Rustam's Horse Killing a Lion, King Nushirwan Dispensing Justice, the Spinners; and Rustam Meeting Kai Khusrau. All are minute in scale, with gold backgrounds and a harmonious color scheme of gold, bright blue, red, pink, and lilac. The figures are reminiscent of those on Rhages pottery and the composition, particularly of Rustam Meeting Kai Khusrau, is unusually fine. The painting of Rustam sleeping while his horse kills a lion is the least successful from this point of view. Instead of lying in a meadow Rustam appears to be floating in air, for the gold of the sky extends to the fringe of plants in the immediate foreground. Other miniatures from fourteenth century copies of the Shah Nama include a battle between Iran and Turan and a King Enthroned, both attributed to Shiraz or Isafahan. A late fourteenth-century painting of Tahmina visiting Rustam has great charm despite the somewhat stilted appearance of the figures.With the conquest of Persian by Timur a change came over Persian painting. The Shah Nama was no longer, as in the fourteenth century, the chosen themes of artists. Taste and the senses turned into the more exquisite aspects of life. The poems of Nizami and Sa'di were the chief inspiration for artists and in the illustration of them Persian painters employed all the mastery of a maturing art. Refinements of color and design, a gracious and more voluptuous treatment of the human figure, and an extreme delicacy in drawing of flowers and shrubs contributed to the perfection of an art which was surpassed only by the creations of Bihzad, greatest of Timurid painters. In his hands all the swelling elements of Persian painting were brought together and assimilated with the inventiveness of incident and gesture, the broader conception of design, and the interest in daily life that were Bihzad's personal contribution to Persian painting.The poetic appeal of Nizami's Khamsa, the Five Poems, is illustrated in two fifteenth-century paintings in the Webber Collection. The earliest, depicting Khusrau killing a lion with his fist, is still slightly archaic in feeling, but the delicate color scheme of green, red, rose, soft purple, and black illustrates a new preoccupation with elegance. The painting of Khusrau arriving at Shirin's palace is one of poise and great charm, while a painting of Bahram Gur in the Black Palace from a sixteenth-century copy of the Khamsa possess, in its refinement of architectural detail and sophisticated use of luminous color in a décor prevailing black, the restrained sumptuousness characteristic of Timurid painting. The art of Bihzad, known through only a few authentic paintings, was emulated by many. One such artist painted the early seventeenth-century miniature of a lively scene which is interesting as an example of the master's style. This is probably one side of double miniature in the style of a well known painting in Cairo.The greatest glory of Persian painting, its color, is equalled in Persian drawing by the calligraphic line. A superb late sixteenth-century example is in ink drawing of Two Drunkards in the style of Sa'diq. Here, as in the best early drawings, a sensitive feeling for line is allied with a gift for expressing form and illuminating gesture. Like the Chinese, the Persians revered fine writing, and the mastery with which they practiced it is evidenced in the Webber Collection by several important examples of pages from the Koran. In their way these pages are as beautiful as the radiant illustrations for great manuscripts. The discreet use of gold and muted color accentuates the majestic rhythm of the writing, creating abstract images of potent appeal.In leaving her collection to the Institute Mrs. Webber has left something more than the visible expression of one of the great arts of Asia; she has left a constant reminder of her own delight in beauty and her desire to share that delight with others through these jewel-like treasures of a vanished age.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Khusrau comes to Shirin's palace. Miniature from a XV-century manuscript of the KHAMSA by Nizami. Persian, Tabriz (?) Webber Bequest.
  2. A medicinal plant from a XIII-century Arabic translation of MATERIA MEDICA by Dioscorides.
  3. Rustam's horse kills a lion while his master sleeps. Miniature from a small early XIV-century manuscript of Firdausi's SHAH NAMA.
  4. Moses Prevailing over Pharaoh. Miniature from a XIV-century copy of Rashid and Din's history of the world, JAMI AT TAWARIKH.
  5. Rustam meets Kai Khusrau. Miniature from a Mongol SHAH NAMA of the early XIV century showing Chinese influence of the Persian style.
  6. The Spinners. Miniature from the same manuscript as that above. Here the landscape is half Persian, half Chinese.
  7. Khusrau kills a lion with his fist. Painting from Nizami's Romance of Khusrau and Shirin. Persian, XV century.
  8. Bahram Gur in the Black Palace. Painting from Nizami's poem of the Seven Portraits. XVI century.
  9. Courtyard scene from an early XVII-century manuscript in a compositional style introduced by Bihzad in the XV century.
  10. Two Drunkards. Line drawing, Persian, late XVI century.
  11. Leaf from a Koran. Persian, X century.
  12. Leaf from a Koran with decorative chapter heading. Egyptian (Mameluke period) XIV century.
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Source: "The Margaret McMillan Webber Bequest of Persian Paintings," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 40, no. 27 (November, 1951): 134-143.
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Added to Site: March 10, 2009