Persia in Miniature: The Read Persian Album

The Persian Album in the Morgan Library and Museum in the US consists of fourteen exemplary works of miniature paintings executed during the Persian Safavids dynasty which ruled from 1501 to 1722 (with a brief restoration from 1729 to 1736). At their height, the Safavids controlled all of what is now Iran, Azerbaijan Republic, Bahrain, Armenia, eastern Georgia, parts of the North Caucasus, Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan, as well as parts of Turkey, Syria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. This wide span of regions was also reflected in Safavid art, including the Persian Album.

Background to the Collection

Pierport Morgan’s 1911 purchase of two albums (one Persian, one Mughal) from Sir Charles Hercules Read, Keeper of British and Medieval Antiquities at the British Museum, proved to be an important turning point in the history of the Morgan Islamic collection. Belle da Costa Greene, Morgan’s librarian, accompanied by art historian and collector Bernard Berenson, first saw paintings from the albums at the great exhibition of Islamic art in Munich in 1910. She wrote to Read that they were among the finest works exhibited there and that these works should be represented in Morgan’s collection, asking him to give Morgan the right of first refusal. The Read Persian Album as it became known was subsequently acquired by Morgan. Fifteen of the twenty-seven sheets, once bound accordion style, are presented here. Most of the paintings were made between the late 16th and early 17th century. They offer invaluable insights into the daily lives of both ordinary and noble Persians at the time.

Standing Uzbek Youth, ca 1600, 38 x 24 cm. The youth in this painting wears a large turban surrounding a conical orange kulah of Uzbek type.
Seated Courier with His Falcon, ca 1600, 32 x 23 cm. Muslims were noted for their skill and knowledge of falconry. Here, a nobleman seems to converse lovingly with his hunting falcon, which rests on his knee rather than on his gloved hand.

Youth Flexing a Bow, ca 1600, 38 x 24 cm. One of the exercises practiced by Persian athletes was bow flexing. Such bows, clearly, not meant for hunting, were supplied with discs that produced pleasant sounds when shot.

An Aristocratic Smithy, ca 1600, 38 x 24 cm. Part of a Persian prince’s education included gaining proficiency in a craft such as carpentry or musical instruments. Here a youth in a bright orange robe and henna-stamped fingernails is making a horseshoe. This painting and three others in the Read Persian Album appear to be copies of lost works by Habib-Allah al-Mashhadi, an important court painter.

An Uzbek Prisoner, ca 1600, 38 x 24 cm. The man’s large white turban identifies him as a typical Uzbek. He is in a kneeling position, secured by a wooden yoke. Nonetheless, he still has his bow, quiver, dagger, sword, and a red riding whip. Although such representations of Uzbek prisoners date back to about 1550, they remained popular until the late 16th century when Uzbek rule came to an end in Herat, Afghanistan, which was a key city under Safavid rule.

A Young Lady Reclining after a Bath, ca 1600, 38 x 24 cm. This painting depicts a woman daydreaming after her bath. Although ancient statues of Ariadne sleeping and recumbent Venuses by Venetian masters come to mind, no direct influence can be demonstrated. The subject’s hips are covered by a blue cloth with rows of golden ducks, which symbolize purity. It is doubtless that the young woman thinks only of her beloved.
A Seated Dandy in a Fur-lined Coat, ca 1600. 38 x 24 cm. The youth in this painting sports an enormous plaid turban, worn over a mottled blue cap. The brown fur lining of his coat is convincingly represented as are his handkerchief and sash. His right arm is supported with a square pillow decorated with geometric designs around a star and a gold bolster. Behind him is a larger golden bottle with matching tray, both studded with precious stones.
Lovers observed by a Youth, ca 1630, 38 x 24 cm. A married woman (indicated by the triangular diadem hanging over her forehead) playfully holds her young husband’s large turban above his head, its golden sash cascading over her arm and body. The observing youth may be a family member.
A Man Falls from His Horse, ca 1600, 38 x 24 cm. This painting shows that the horse of a heavily-armed warrior has stumbled, causing the rider to fall head over heels, dislodging his helmet, knives, arrows and the riding whip. The man has Central Asian features and his horse has a tail knotted in the Turkman fashion.
Archer Rising an Aged Horse, ca 1625-30, 38 x 24 cm. This painting depicts a Central Asian rider astride his exhausted, if not lame, horse. Such images have been seen as a symbol of humility – the necessary suppression of a man’s ego, and one of the main tasks of a Sufi on his spiritual journey.
Emaciated Horse and Rider, first half of the 17th century, India, Deccan, possibly Biijapur. Set against a marbled background, a nearly skeletal rider crosses his ankles to stay astride an emaciated horse with no saddle. Such images are known to be popular in Persian and Mughal art. There have been many mystical interpretations. For Rumi, the starved horse denotes lust, which faith and reason had to reign in. In India, emaciation was associated with ascetics and holy men.
Inhabited Exotic Foliage, 1625 – 1626, leaf from an album possibly by Riza Cabbasi, 38 x 24 cm. Saz, or “enchanted forest” drawings inhabited with all kinds of creatures, were popular during the 16th and 17th centuries. This black and red ink drawing contains sixty-two representations – mostly heads of humans, animals, and birds, interspersed among Chinese-style blossoms and leaves. A love poem in the border begins and ends with references to the garden where the beloved displays her loveliness and her face.
A Qizilbash and His Horse Entangles by a Dragon, ca 1550, Persian, Qazvin, 38 x 24 cm. The Qizilbash were a group of Shi-ite Islamic militant groups that flourished from the 13th century onward. In 1510 they supported the Timurid ruler Babur in his war against the Uzbeks and won Samarkand for him. Here, the hero has a sword and bow, and attacks the dragon with his small dagger. Both the marvelously intertwined horse and dragon are spotted.
Imaginary Fern, ca 1580. Persia, Herat and/or Deccan, 38 x 24 cm. This apparently imaginary fern is set against a gold background filled with ink drawings of various plants and animals, including the mythical simurgh (phoenix-like bird). The border, containing twelve verses of Urfi’s poetry, also includes busts of youths, female-faced suns, and animals by the hand responsible for the ink drawings surrounding the fern.
Youth Pulling on a Falconer’s Glove, ca 1600, 38 x 24 cm. Paintings of young nobleman with their falcons became very popular during the late 16th century. Here a young nobleman, pulling on a leather falconer’s glove, gazes at his pet falcon perched on his knee.

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