Portrait of a Safavid nobleman - Aga Khan Museum
Aga Khan Development Network
The Aga Khan Museum: Paintings - Safavid, 17th century CE  Place your mouse over the image
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Object name
Portrait Of A Safavid Nobleman


Safavid, 17th century CE


Materials and technique
Oil on canvas

160 x 85 cm

Accession number


The technique employed here is the first clear evidence of Western influence; although the Islamic world was not unaware of monumental painting - the paucity of surviving examples is attributable to the accidents of history - painting on a large-scale support, separate from the wall, is an imported genre. India also appears to witness an upsurge of this kind of painting around the same time (the portrait of Jahangir, for example), but with very different results. By contrast, this painting, one of two in the Museum's collection, reflects a much more direct debt to European painting. Firstly it shows the use of a foreign technique - painting in oils on canvas. Secondly it employs linear perspective: here the vanishing point is located outside the painting of the young man, slightly above the balustrade on the right. The European-style architecture with columns and mouldings - rather overdone - is almost a direct quotation of a Van Dyck-style full-length portrait: only the curtain is missing. The position of the vanishing point suggests the existence of a counterpart to this painting, composed to match it. Another pair of full-length “portraits”, of a man and a young woman, as here, displays a composition presenting a direct mirror image. These compositional differences suggest the conclusion that the two paintings in the Museum's collection were probably part of a larger group incorporated in an architectural setting such as the pavilion of Chehel Sutun palace or one of the Armenian residences of Isfahan’s New Julfa. The bow, the dagger in the belt, the turban and the green shoes indicate that the subject is a young courtier. These paintings immediately pose the question of the painter’s cultural origins. The lower part of the garment, which is awkwardly handled, with unconvincing modelling; the position of the feet - which appear to be floating above the ground; the sketchy form of the shadow, and finally the lack of expertise in conveying depth displayed in the position of the left hand and the bow: all these elements seem to argue for a painter from the Safavid milieu working in the style of European painting. The face shows great sensitivity, combining the use of Western-style modelling - also adopted by Mughal painting in the seventeenth century - with abstraction in the treatment of volumes and the skin surface. It is this abstraction that makes the “portrait” concept unconvincing here, suggesting an affinity with the Iranian pictorial tradition. The qualitative difference between the handling of the face and the body might support an attribution to two different artists. The extent to which European painting styles were adopted varied of course from artist to artist, whether the individuals involved were Georgian, Armenian or Persian. There were farangi (European) painters working in Iran, and paintings - some of mediocre quality, as reported by the Italian Pietro della Valle (1582-1652 CE) - could be seen there. It is difficult to quantify exactly the impact of illustrated travel accounts like the later one by Cornelis Le Bruyn. Yet the young man’s appearance of youthful determination is actually heightened by some of the stylistic awkwardness here: the lack of support gives him a liveliness that is accentuated by the restricted movement of the arm holding the arrow. Finally the light skin tone of the young man’s face is framed by a magnificent pleated turban with light and shadow effects that contribute to its powerful decorative impact.

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3 pieces found