Painting in Muslim realms has frequently reflected Islam’s historic role in uniting people of quite diverse origins. The Arab-led conquests of the seventh century initially united people from the Persian Gulf to Gibraltar under Islamic rule, and subsequent centuries saw people from further south in Africa, from Central Asia, and from the Indian subcontinent join the world of Islam.
Artistic interchange covered even more territory; to take one example, after the Mongol conquests of the 13th century, interest in Chinese art can be seen in painting from Egypt to Mesopotamia, from Spain to Central Asia. In addition to motifs and techniques adapted from foreign styles, one also finds outsiders — foreigners, unbelievers, and newcomers — as the subjects of images.
Well before the coming of Islam, Iran had a strong tradition of incorporating foreign cultures into its own. Persian emperors have often taken proprietary pride in cataloguing the diversity of their subject peoples; the remains of Persepolis contain not only written lists of subject nations and their tributes but also images in which distinctive clothes, hair, and beards identify all the subject peoples. Of course, Persia not only conquered but was itself frequently conquered. Often its response was to make the conqueror its own; thus, Alexander the Great features in the Shahnameh (the tenth- or eleventh-century Persian historical epic) as a great Persian king. Alongside the tenacity of Persian culture, its ability to absorb foreign elements is one of its most important and characteristic traits.
The adaptation of the skills, interests, and values of many cultures was crucial to the success of the Safavid Dynasty. The first Safavid shah, Ismaeil I, came to power with the support of a predominantly Turkish army, but he continually stressed his Persian heritage. As the Safavid state developed, other shahs had even more need to appeal to both their Persian legitimacy and to the support of non-Persians and non-Muslims. Shah Abbas I used Georgian and Circassian soldiers to break the power of Turkman leaders in his army; he used Armenian merchants to expand his trading empire from England to India; he used Europeans to enhance the prestige of his court in art and in arms; and all the while, he maintained his ties to local traditions. His successors at Isfahan continued in his path.
We must consider the place of the foreigner in the arts of Safavid Isfahan in this context. Interest in the particulars of the world outside the traditional, idealizing concerns of Persian art has long been remarked on in 17th century Safavid court images. This broadening of artistic horizons surely is related to the outward expansion of the Safavid Empire, especially in trade.
The elites now had to deal with a wider world; in the arts of the court, a variety of responses emerged.
The revival of 15th-century Timurid styles in architecture and manuscript illustration would seem to be a nostalgic, almost defensive attempt to preserve the lost world, while the exploration of new subject matter seems to have been a way of coming to grips with a new world, perhaps even of controlling it: An image that presents knowledge of a stranger’s appearance, and even of his state of mind, offers some degree of authority over that newcomer. Similarly, the use of imported styles is a way of adopting their strengths to one’s own purposes. These developments were especially strong in the book arts, and primarily in the individual leaves for which Isfahan is particularly known.
Aqa Reza (who also signed himself as Reza Abbasi) was a central figure in the development of a new kind of painting at the court of Shah ‘Abbas I.
He was the director of the royal library atelier in Isfahan from 1597 to 1635 and a master of the figure study on a single leaf. His successes in the medium must have contributed to its rise in popularity in the 17th century. Reza received a salary from the shah until his death in 1635, but he was criticized for spending long periods away from the royal atelier, associating with “low persons.” He depicted the life of the streets and the lower classes, producing drawings of soldiers, peasants, beggars, travelers, and entertainers, as well as the more traditional drawings of refined courtiers. His clever evocation of the particulars of his subjects, and attention to local color (whether in the form of a courtier’s exquisite clothing and languid posture or the exotic animals accompanying an entertainer) set the tone for many Isfahan images.
The above is a lightly edited version of part of a chapter entitled ‘Contemplating the Other: “Isfahan Style” Miniatures’ from a book entitled ‘Book Arts of Isfahan’, written by Alice Taylor, published by the J. Paul Getty Museum.