Pre – Islamic Persian painting is virtually unknown to us, though we do know that it existed. It seems likely that in spite of the Arab conquest and the subsequent centuries of alien rule, native traditions persisted. Some of the figures on Nishapur pottery of the 10th to 11th centuries, for example, have a markedly Sasanian character. Such examples of Persian book – painting as there may have been at this time, however, were swept away in the Mongol cataclysm of the early 13th century which culminated in the sack of Baghdad in 1258.
For Persian painting proper we have to wait until the end of the 13th century, when the Mongol conquerors had settled down, become good Muslims, and adopted the civilization of the land they had overrun. The earliest examples we know were produced in the north –west, at Maragheh and Tabriz, and the style is a strange mixture of native tradition with ideas and techniques borrowed from Byzantium and China. The vast Mongol conquests had greatly facilitated communications. The Yuan Emperors of china were themselves Mongols; Byzantine ideas had already influenced the international “Abbasid School of Baghdad”; the Mongols even established contracts with Western Europe and mediaeval Italian drawings were certainly known to them.
From a melting-pot emerged the style known to us from the early 14th century manuscripts of the World History of Rashid Al –Din preserved at Edinburgh University and the Royal Asiatic Society. These miniatures are strong – one might almost say stark – and colour is very restrained. Western influences seen in the rendering of figures and drapery, but the vegetation and landscape elements derive directly from China; compositions are simple. The miniatures are usually of narrow oblong shape with the figures disposed in a row in a single plane.
We may believe Dust Muhammad, a court painter of the 16th century and virtually our only literary source for this period, it was in the next generation during the reign of Abu Sa’id that the true style of Persian painting was born from the genius of the artist Ahmad Musa. Some miniatures attributed to him in the Istanbul albums bear out Dust Muhammad’s statement which was no doubt the oral tradition current among court artists of his time. Though it has been usual to discredit these admittedly later attributions, the tradition may well be worthy of more credit than it has sometimes received; the attributions, in fact, appear to date from about the period when Dust Muhammad wrote his valuable account. He goes on to tell us that Ahmad Musa`s pupil Shams al –Din was the chief illustrator of a great ” Shahnameh ” manuscript executed for the Jalayirid Sultan Uvais (1356 – 75), and it seems reasonable here to follow Mr. Eric Schroeder in equating this later manuscript with the celebrated “Demotte Shahnameh” of which many miniatures survive in the great collections of England, France, and the United states.
From all of this, it seems clear that what Ahmad Musa did was to blend the heterogeneous and ill-digested foreign elements of early 14th century painting to develop a rich colour–scheme, and to expand the compositions. Even in the Demotte Shahnameh, however, we find a number of miniatures which are still fairly close to the Rashid al–Din illustrations of 1306 -14, presumably the work of an elderly artist trained in the school of Rashidiyya.
In the middle years of the 15th century, the large number of Shiraz manuscript seems to indicate that the city was assuming the role of purveyor of illustrated manuscripts on a commercial scale to patrons of less than royal or noble rank. That these manuscripts were often exported is also suggested by the fact that when miniatures executed in Turkey or India is most Persian in appearance, it is always the Shiraz style of the time that they most closely resemble.
The Turcomans took Shiraz in 1456, and the Shiraz–Timurid style rapidly disappeared, being replaced by the Turcoman style, a simplified and in some ways primitive “utility” type of painting, admirably adapted to the commercial role that Shiraz had apparently assumed in the field of book–production. Manuscripts illustrated in the Turcoman style are particularly numerous between about 1475 and 1500, and the Safavid style of Shiraz grew imperceptibly out of it during the first two decades of the following century.
Muhammadi of Herat, who may has been a son of the great Sultan Muhammad, became foremost exponent of this style, and we may be justified in placing one or two of the more progressive paintings in the Feer Jami among his early work. His fame rests mainly, however, on a number of separate albums–leaves bearing sometimes fully painted miniatures, like the charming “lovers” in the museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and sometimes lightly tinted drawings, such as the “young Darvish with a Spear” in the India office Library. With the decline of royal patronage in Tahmasp’s later years, such single sheets were becoming an increasingly popular as an outlet for patrons of more modest means who could not afford a fully illustrated manuscript, but nevertheless wished to indulge a taste for fine drawing and painting.
From the style of Muhammadi developed a quite distinctive local school of painting found in Kurasan (his native province) during the latter half of the 16 century. The figure drawing is smooth, competent and uncomplicated, very much in Muhammadi`s style; background details of vegetation and architecture are as simple as possible, and the color–scheme is often dominated by pale blue, mauve, or light olive green, which are the favorite colors for the ground.