Arts of the Book: Illustrated Texts, Miniatures
Group Of Sages In Discussion
Safavid, c. 1650 CE
Materials and technique
Opaque watercolour and ink on paper, pasted on card mount
Page 33.4 x 21 cm
This delicate folio displays a closely packed group of sages surrounding a young prince. The prince has come with a young ghulam. ‘Ali Qoli is an Iranian painter who was active in Qazvin and Isfahan in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Iranian sources refer to him as farangi [foreigner] due to the marked influence of Western engravings on his work. However, the page presented here brings up the question of his connections with Mughal India, which have been the subject of some discussion: he may have travelled there, and certainly he was at least familiar with the images produced by masters such as Manohar, Govardhan and Payag. His activity is documented between 1084 H /1673 CE and 1129 H /1716 CE. His main works are preserved in the St Petersburg Album and several pages - including a “Susanna and the Elders” with his signature - were in an album assembled in the late seventeenth century, perhaps by the painter and ornemanist Muhammad Baqir. It is from this small album that this page originates. It was set opposite a signed Group of Mystics and Young Princes by the Mughal painter Manohar. Both works were framed by a similar border of matte silver and gold, featuring in the upper section a poetic garden of hazel branches, daffodils, iris, roses and hyacinths with fluttering butterflies. The page attributable to ‘Ali Qoli was therefore set alongside a Mughal folio - a genre by which it is very visibly inspired. Yet the intimacy of Manohar’s painting, which like this one uses grisaille effects, with a hazy distant landscape, is followed by ‘Ali Qoli’s more spatially crowded and chromatically intense folio. New techniques also point to the assimilation of European sources, in particular the use of two figures in three-quarter profile, facing away from the viewer, as “repoussoirs” who help to close the cirle of the gathering in the attempt to give the space a lifelike quality. Ten figures are packed in, and a young prince wearing a turban adorned with a narcissus holds a strange phylactery. This is probably a clumsy depiction of a safina, a manuscript of elongated form and frequently poetic nature. He turns towards a group of sheikhs and ascetics. The ground is covered with a black carpet dotted with flowers which makes it difficult to “read” the page easily. Here and there the design is interspersed with splashes of colour, in this respect approaching the spirit of the folio attributable to Govardhan, and yet the distance from the Mughal model is clear to see. The mystics here are not very lifelike and the accumulation of character types visibly compiled from various picture sources produces a rather cluttered scene.
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