Woman With a Veil, album folio attributed to Riza-i 'Abbasi, circa 1590-95. Isfahan. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian, H x W (image): 34.2 x 21.5 cm (13 7/16 x 8 7/16 in)
"The rose garden which today is full of flowers,
when tomorrow you would pluck a flower
it may not have one for you." Firdawsi (10th-11th c.)
“From the bounty of the rose,
the nightingale learned speech, for if not,
there had not been in his throat
all this sweet speech and singing." Hafez (14th c. ) (1)
The haunting images of both Firdawsi and Hafez on roses and nightingale song remind us about the retrieval of beauty through memory. This is a perfect distillation of sensory richness found alike in the best poetry of the world, shared with Sappho and the HebrewSong of Songs, where striking visual kinesis is mingled with music and fragrance and where so many impressions (sight, sound, smell, movement) conjoin in lyrical mastery as a sensory cluster. (2) Since visual imagery is important in verbal poetry, how much poetic ambience can be found in visual painting?
Lyricism is clearly found not only in poetic word but also in visual poetic image. Persian painting in the Safavid period of Persia under Shah ‘Abbas (1587-1629) rose to its zenith in the art of painters such as Sadiqi Beg (1533-c. 1610) and especially Riza-i ‘Abbasi (1565-1635) at Isfahan. (3) For reference and study, the magisterial, gemlike books of Sheila Canby are the best sources on Persian painting for the Anglophone world. (4) Along with rich textiles and grand architecture, Persian paintings are one of the primary expressions of Safavid greatness even in microcosm (5), influencing Mughal art in India while newly examining ideas imbibed from European drawing and perspective. (6)
The Safavid master, Riza-i ‘Abbasi, was trained by his artist father, the court painter Ali Asghar, and much stylistic innovation and later influence is attributed to the son Riza, who was able around 1603 to append ‘Abbasi as a title “of ‘Abbas” to his name from his service to the court of Shah ‘Abbas although he left the shah’s service to paint on his own before returning to court and its kitabkhaneh workshop of poets, painters and other artists. (7) Similar in rebellious temperament to the sublime but realistic chiaroscuro Italian painter Caravaggio – who also preferred the company of rowdies and courtesans (8) - the lyricism of Riza can be seen in album folio paintings such as Woman with a Veil, circa 1590-95, one of his earlier attributed works now in the Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian, where descriptions of the work examined here even include the idea of "visual poetry."
Perhaps the viewer’s first impression is made from the distinct arching bow of the woman’s body as Riza bends her body strongly to the left with a movement that shows great kinesis on a large scale. Similar contours are often typical for his early courtly personages.(9) Perhaps this woman's gracefully-bowed body even alludes to her standing against wind or a strong breeze, accentuated by the tilt of her head in the opposite direction to the right. Descriptive details abound on the small scale as well. Using opaque watercolor, gold and ink, such bright primary pastel colors – one of his earlier hallmarks (10) – as red, yellow and blue are deliberately chosen and separated for maximum effect in the woman’s garments, shown from ankles upward above her black shoes and decorated gold undertrousers. A lavender shawl veil covers her from head to hip, open in the front. The concerted movement of her clothes with her body – even the many folds of the fairly tightly wrapped shawl veil and her blue-sleeved arm - implies both the mobility and clinging manner of light silk. Although pinned at the upper neck hem, her dark red blouse undergarment is narrowly open at her hinted breast. A gold forehead bangle and bright red and blue spangled headscarf are just visible under the shawl head veil, expressing different layers of emphasis relative to the bright pastel color garments. For lighter effect as counterpoint, her modest dainty necklace jewelry is answered by her heavier gold cloth belt sash tied at her waist, and gold buttons and gold cloth rosettes embroidered on her blue coat all simultaneously express Riza’s love of detail as well as visual economy, especially with only her bent left thumb seen under the held veil.
In subdued and subtle contrast to the woman, the natural light-brown paper background of an almost golden hue is balanced with calligraphic ink style in the lighter fronded and flowering plants in the rocks on either side of the woman, carefully placed in the empty spaces of the paper background at lower left and middle right. Above her, dramatic yet faint calligraphic swirls in the sky may represent moving air and cumulus clouds.
Similar finesse and balance of larger context with intricate detail are seen in many Persian paintings from the Safavid court. Almost certainly known to Riza-i 'Abbasi was an older artist who preceded him in leadership of the kitabkhaneh when it was in Qazvin, Sadiqi Beg (1533-c. 1610). One of Sadiqi's attributed paintings 'Balqis and the Hoopoe' now in the British Museum and contemporary with Riza's work here also shows a marvelous detail. Balqis, legendary Queen of Sheba, is reclining and wearing a beautiful garment Canby observantly identifies as a "remarkable waqwaq design" because it bears calligraphic animal and human heads interspersed with embroidered floral patterns. (11) Such detail is truly mesmerizing and shows these Safavid artists were attentive in such paintings to many aspects of the crafts in their culture.
Continuing Riza’s customary boldness tempered with subtlety in the above painting at hand,Woman with a Veil, perhaps the consummate artist in Riza now brings the viewer to the likely crux of the painting. The woman’s mostly properly hidden left hand holds her veil open in a protective shell between her hand and covered forehead. Like a candle kept out of the breeze, her pear-shaped right hand gently holds and shields between thumb and second finger the stem of a fragile spray of white flowers and her slightly-smiling oval face bends down to the flowers as if to both see its tiny blossoms and smell its scent, a meditative moment of acute sensory appreciation and the philosophic realization that attends this sensuality. The wind – ambiguous in direction but swirling on either side and behind - would tear away its petals and disperse the flowers’ fragrance. With her almond eyes focusing directly on the flower stem she seems to realize bent in the wind herself that she is just like that flower, fragile and ephemeral. A well of sympathy brings the viewer to a mutual poignant universal: the tragedy of Beauty is its brevity. (12)
(1) Firdawsi: "King Nishavir's Address to the Grandees of Persia" and "Ode of Hafez". E. S. Holden, tr. Flowers from Persian Gardens. Cambridge, MA: University Press, 1901, 54, 131; also see Rumi on the rose, Mehdi Khansari, M. Reza Moghtader, Minouch Yavari. The Persian Garden: Echoes of Paradise. Washington, DC: Mage Publishing, 2004, 171.
(2) Patrick Hunt. Poetry in the Song of Songs: A Literary Analysis. New York: Peter Lang, 2008, ch. 2, pp. 55-56 and ch. 4, pp. 83-101.
(3) Sir Lawrence Gowing, ed. A Biographical Dictionary of Artists. Abingdon: Andromeda Oxford, 2002 repr., 581-82.
(4) for example, Sheila R. Canby. The Rebellious Reformer: The Drawings and Paintings of Riza-yi-Abbasi of Isfahan. London: Azimuth Editions, 1996; Sheila R. Canby. Safavid Art and Architecture. London: British Museum Press, 2002. Also see (7) and (10) below.
(5) Barbara Brend. Islamic Art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991, 148 & ff, 164 & ff.
(6) Anjan Chakraverty. Indian Miniature Painting. New Delhi & Roli & Janssen BV, Netherlands, 2005, 34, 48.
(7) Sheila R. Canby. Persian Painting. London: British Museum, 1993, 94, 98.
(8) Patrick Hunt. Caravaggio. London: Haus, 2004, chs. 4-5 & 7-8, pp. 29-67, 92-107
(9) Canby, 1993, 99.
(10) Sheila R. Canby. The Golden Age of Persian Art 1501-1722. London: British Museum, 2002 ed., 107.
(11) ibid. Canby, 2002, 106. Also see Glossary, 187 for waqwaq. Sadiqi Beg's painting is 9.9 by 19.2 cm, British Museum OA 1948.12-11.08. In Canby's book, this illustration is Plate 93, also page 106.
(12) Patrick Hunt. Laws of Nature (Aphorisms), 2000. See http://www.jamesgeary.com/blog/aphorisms-by-patrick-hunt/
Image courtesy of the Smithsonian (http://www.asia.si.edu/). Lent by the Art and History Collection; Courtesy of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.: LTS1995.2.80 (permisssion granted by Betsy Kohut, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution).
copyright © 2008 Dr. Patrick Hunt