Persian Painting: From Parietal Wall Paintings to Miniatures (Illuminated Manuscripts)

Persian-Miniature Persian Miniature

Persian painting is as old as human history, from human presence in caves to the present. This painting has been present in various styles throughout history.
The history of the art of painting in Iran goes back to the Cave period. In the caves of Lorestan province, parietal wall paintings of animals and humans have been discovered from more than 12,000 years ago.

Cave-Painting-Khoramabad-Iran

Cave Paintin in Khoramabad (Iran)

Rock-Art-Golpayegan-Iran

Rock Art in Golpayegan (Iran)

In addition, the paintings discovered on pottery in Silk Hill and Susa also prove that Iranian artists in these areas were familiar with the art of painting. The designs on the pottery are animal and nature shapes that are very simple and geometrically drawn. Given that the writing came from the paintings, these paintings also appear to have been some part of the writing.

Few paintings belong to Parthian period have also been found in Mount Khaje Sistan and Dura-Europos in Mesopotamia which can see the religious traditions of painting before Islam. Sometimes the genre painting used is a remining of Iranian miniatures.

In the Sassanid era, the Iranian painter Mani, the prophet, painted valuable art works in Arjang’s book.

From the beginning of Islam to the Seljuk era, the Umayyad and Abbasid rulers had monopolized the practice of painting and largely prevented its growth among the people. The beginnings and margins of books were usually painted and decorated. The art of book designing was greatly improved during the eras of Seljuks, Mongols, and Timurids. Painting has been independently introduced since about the tenth century AH (1495 CE – 1591 CE).

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Modern Persian Miniature Painting

The earliest paintings of the Islamic era are known from the Baghdad or Abbasi style. This genre painting has attention to animals and the description is accompanied by pictures of stories. The artists of this genre painting created a kind of innovation in painting. They were keen to create a new style after years of stagnation in the art of painting, but they were not successful. Their art works use a few colors. Their art works can be found in the illustrated book by Kalila and Demna. The paintings of this era generally show signs of the Mani genre painting.

After the Mongol invasion, a new Mongol style was established in Iran. This style was influenced by Chinese art and Mogul style had dry and motionless designs. After settling in Iran, the Mongols became affected by Iranian art. They respected not only the technique but also Iranian subjects. Iranian paintings were also influenced by the Mongol style. Iranians were inspired by Chinese designs and painted them with a certain skill with Iranian paints.

The devastating Mongol invasion of the early seventh century AH (1203 CE – 1299 CE) resulted in the destruction of many Iranian cultural monuments. Genghis Khan’s Mongol heirs, having accepted the religion of Islam, established governments in Iran and took the artists to their capitals in Tabriz and Maragheh. On the other hand, some of the artists were attracted to Shiraz because of the compromise between Mongol rulers and Shiraz rulers. At the same time, Rabia Rashidi’s scientific and art center was created in Tabriz by Khaje Rashiduddin Fazlullah, which encouraged artists and scholars.

At the same center a book called The History of Rashidi was written, copies of which are decorated with numerous paintings. Technically the paintings of this era are stronger than the Seljuk era. The colors are very varied, and the designs are very accurate. In most paintings, the shapes are of Chinese origin. Like mountains, clouds and birds that are carefully designed and flowers and trees that are full of twigs and tops. The collection of works of this period, also known as the Tabriz style, since they originated in Tabriz.

Miniature Painting Called "Khayyam's Autumn" by Master Hossein Behzad

Miniature Painting Called “Khayyam’s Autumn” by Master Hossein Behzad

There was a style in Shiraz that was less influenced by Chinese methods and became known as the Shiraz style.

Unlike both Baghdadi and Mongolian styles, today, many samples of Heratian style are accessible. Timur’s ancestors were the founders of this style. Paint experts believe that the Iranian painting had reached in peak during Timurid era and could free itself from impacts of the Chinese style. Pictures in “Baysunghuri Shahnameh” prove this truth.

The level of coloring had dramatically been grown in comparison with previous styles. From this time forward, emerging painters’ signatures on works display that they could free themselves from foreign forms. This matter considered a sign of the growth of the painting profession in this era.

Persian Miniature Painting in Chinese Style

Persian Miniature Painting in Chinese Style

Kamaluddin Behzad was one of the prominent painters of the Heratian style. He invented a new type of painting in Iran and portraited the lives of ordinary people rather than traditional and monarchic models. His works even affected Indian and Turkish art.

Heratian style was in vogue in the early decades of the Safavid rule. Illustrated versions of “Khamsa of Nizami” are one of the valuable works of this era. Notably, approximately all the famous painters of the time involved in creating these value works. Several painters like Mirak and Mir Seyyed Ali were students of Behzad, and others had been affected by the style of Behzad, such as Sultan Mohammad.

Persian Miniature Painting

Persian Miniature Painting

In the following years, due to the growth of urbanization and by building palaces in the new capital Isfahan, the function of painting changed and became a part of the architecture in several cases. In this era, artists also used paint for decorating walls. Ali Qapu Palace and Chehel Sotoun in Isfahan are the essential buildings; their interior designs benefited from painting.

Parts of the development of painting in the Safavid era depended on being familiar with the western culture. At the time, several European painters visited Iran, and a group of Iranian youths who were eager to painting traveled to Italy for the first time. Therefore, the western-style and using standard tools in the West, such as oils, canvas, and unusual colors, became common in Iran. Mohammad Zaman was one of the most prominent artists in that era. His works are mostly designed based on western-style, and only a few jobs of Zaman portraited the cultural scopes of the time. He also was a passion for painting nature.

In the same era, a group of painters continued painting in the traditional style. Reza Abbasi was one of those people who implemented the evolution of Behzad’s attitude in his works. The remaining works from Zandieh era are either repetition of the art in the Safavid era or are the preparation for the next development in the Iranian style. At the Qajar era, the continuation of the western style brought out new results.

In that era, a unique style consisted of a combination of Iranian traditions and western customs. Most objects of painting consist of portrayals of kings, influential figures, and princes. It’s possible to call the paints in Zandieh and Qajar eras the “Zand and Qajar style.” Aqa Sadegh, Mohammad Ali, and Mohammad Hassan were the most famous painters for this style.

The Gol va Morq [flower and bird] is another style that has been familiar since the late of Sofia era. This style is affected by decorative art of the West, and most colors have originated in western styles. Artists were using this style for beautifying penners, boxes, and occasionally for the coverage of books.

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Persian Miniature Painting in “Flower and Bird” Style

When the doctrine of Zend and Qajar was in decline, a prominent painter called Abolhassan Ghaffari known as Sani Al-Malek appeared and bought a big change in paintings in Qajar era. His role, especially as founder of Iran’s graphic art was important, since he and his students prepared the first images of the newspapers of that time.
During his tenure, Amir Kabir established a school to encourage artists named Industrial Assembly. In this school, best teachers of different subjects of that time were brought together. At this center, Abolhassan Khan Naghash Bashi was illuminating the book Thousand and One Nights. He was a naturalist painter.

At the end of Qajar era, a painter known as Kamal Al-Molk (Mohammad Ghafari) was attracted to Naser Al-Din Shah’s palace. His interest in painting made him to come to Europe. He learned classic western paintings and most of all he loved the Dutch painter Rembrandt. His orientation was to be naturalistic, but is his works, he always paid attention to the life of Iranian people and culture. He was one the founders of the artistic school and museum of Iran.

Portrait of Hakim-ol-molk, by Mohammad Ghaffäri Kamal-ol-molk. Dated 1329

Portrait of Hakim-ol-molk, by Mohammad Ghaffäri Kamal-ol-Molk. Dated 1950

Many artists followed Kamal Al-Molk’s style in painting and founded the academic manner. Their serious activities started from the Industrial Assembly school. Most characteristic style of this school was ethnography, penumbra, delicate work, using people’s culture and strong creativity.

Another style of painting started in Qajar era was the coffee house paintings. At the beginning, this style was created by untrained painters based on storytellers telling epic and religious stories in coffee houses. Owners of the coffee houses were the first among the buyers of these painting to attract more customers. This method was step by step fell out of the boom by creating the public media, especially television.

With the onset of political developments, western movements began in Iran and affected everything, including painting. Most of the painters were interested in Western styles and took distance from ancient traditions. This group became famous as modern painters that to some extent stayed away from the original Iranian traditions and imitated less nature. At the other hand, some artists followed the same traditional methods. A new painting style in contemporary Iranian painting was a movement from the side of the painters in order to revive Iranian old and traditional arts.

The methods of this group of artists was naturalistic arts and human arts that reminded old Iranian paintings. A clear characteristic of these paintings and miniatures of this kind was beautiful and attractive faces, imaginary and dreamy places, hedgy and wrinkly clothes, high-heeled shawls, beautiful margins and also love stories and epic Golestan and Bostan and Shahnameh.

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Persian Miniature Painting, the Portrait of Leili and Majnoon

One of the methods created in this era was the sanctuary method. The opposed imitation and tried to use traditional elements in their paintings. This style of painting had a deep connection with the magnificent periods of authentic Iranian art of the past. The artistic feature of this doctrine is the use of brand and material of choice, the freedom to choose its designs, colors and figure, which had direct connection to Iranian culture.

The progress of sanctuary painters gave rise to new styles of painting and calligraphy that sometimes make it hard to recognize if it’s a painting or calligraphy and drives the viewer into obscurity. This type of painting uses specific signs such as claws, science, geometric shapes with a combination of thick colors, attractive curves and arches and scrambled letters.

Persian Painting and calligraphy

Persian Painting and calligraphy

However, the old Iranian paintings is still considered as one of the largest styles of painting in the world. The clear light blue skies, the marvelous beauty of the blossoms and flowers on the trees, the pristine nature and among them the images of various, ugly, beautiful, good and bad human beings made a special appearance on the canvas of Iranian artists and has created great pride for Iran and all Iranians.

About Siavosh Hosseini (332 Articles)
My background is in the visual arts, particularly in photojournalism. I have had the opportunity to cover scores of international artistic and news events in the US and across Europe since the mid-1980s. I was active in television newsrooms and production as a graphic designer and producer for more than 12 years in different television and news outfits in Europe.

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