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Meet Persian Leonardo – Bihzad

Artists' Stories

Meet Persian Leonardo – Bihzad

Mainstream art history often brushes off the artists who do not originate from Western Europe and North America. The masterpiece ‘canon’ barely includes any non-western art, and all the Old Masters are European, too. At DailyArtDaily we want to promote also the art that is marginalized yet no less influential, no less important, no less beautiful. This is why today we want to present you a miniature painter who is considered a Persian Leonardo: Kamal al-din Bihzad (Kamāl ud-Dīn Behzād, c. 1450 – c. 1535).

Bihzad, Alexander the Great and the seven sages, Khamsa of Nizami dated 900/1494-85, British Library, London, Or. 6810, fol. 214b, behzad persian painter

Bihzad, Alexander the Great and the seven sages, Khamsa of Nizami dated 900/1494-85, British Library, London, Or. 6810, fol. 214b

Bihzad’s name has become synonymous with the high level of artistic skill displayed by the painters under the reign of Timurids and later the dynasty of Safavids in today’s Afghanistan and Iran, as he led an entire workshop (or kitabkhana) producing manuscript illuminations. Moreover, he came up with a new style which uses geometry and architectural elements as the structural or compositional context in which the figures are arranged. If you ever had books which contained illustrations with ‘architectural’/’optical’ illusions, you’ll soon see many similarities.

Attributed to Bihzad, Leaf from a dispersed manuscript of the Dīvān of Ḥāfiẓ, ca. 1480, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 17.81.4, behzad persian painter

Attributed to Bihzad, Leaf from a dispersed manuscript of the Dīvān of Ḥāfiẓ, ca. 1480, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 17.81.4

 

Persian Leonardo - Bihzad

Detail from Leaf from a dispersed manuscript of the Dīvān of Ḥāfiẓ, ca. 1480, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 17.81.4

The figures, designed as idealized types or stock characters which repeat across the manuscript and feature in different stories, are meant to convey a sense of mood and person­ality more subtle and expressive than in customary Persian manuscripts. However, the precision of drawing and control in execution is superb and was the hallmark of 15th-century painting in Herat, Afganistan. The precision in the pattern, calligraphy, and design is Bihzad’s most important legacy, yet the following generations broke with it since the painters painted figures which were rigid and lifeless.

Bihzad, The seduction of Yusuf, Bustan of Saʿdi dated Rajab 893/1488, Dar al-Kutub, Cairo, Adab Farsi, Persian Leonardo - Bihzad

Bihzad, The seduction of Yusuf, Bustan of Saʿdi dated Rajab 893/1488, Dar al-Kutub, Cairo, Adab Farsi

 

Persian Leonardo - Bihzad

Bihzad’s signature is found in the chamber at the top left in a small panel between two windows. It reads: “Work of the slave Bihzad”.

Sadly, not many of his signed works have survived and therefore the personal attribution is a matter of conjecture because, despite the fact that many manuscript illustrations and numerous single paintings have been ascribed to his hand, only a few of these are certified as his work. Behzād’s signatures are either incorporated into architectural inscriptions or placed inconspicuously on an object in the painting.

Do you want to learn more about Islamic Art? have a look at the article “The Art of Mihrab – little masterpieces of Islamic art”.

Fin out more:

 

Magda, art historian and Italianist, she writes about art because she cannot make it herself. She loves committed and political artists like Ai Weiwei or the Futurists; like Joseph Beuys she believes that art can change us and we can change the world.

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