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Oil painting

The traditional formats for painting in the Islamic world were book illustration (see Illustration) and wall painting (see Architecture, §X, C); oil paintings on canvas were a relatively late development. In Iran they began to be produced after the intensification of contacts with Europe in the 17th century, but the link with book production remained strong, so that the best examples give the impression of being enlarged miniatures. In Turkey an indigenous tradition of oil painting was established only in the 19th century, while it was introduced to India by British painters in the late 18th century.

I. Iran. II. Turkey. III. India.

I. Iran

The earliest examples of painting in oils to survive in Iran—the murals of the Chihil Sutun Palace (see Isfahan, §III, G; see also Architecture, color pl. 1:VIII, fig. 1)—were done for Shah ῾Abbas II (r. 1642–66) and were executed in pigment that was mixed with oil and painted directly on the plaster walls; the earliest examples of oil painting on canvas date from the second half of the 17th century. They show large, full-length figures, whose treatment resembles that of contemporary miniatures in the Westernizing style of Shaykh ῾abbasi, Muhammad zaman and ῾Aliquli jabbadar (see also Illustration, §VI, A). The oil paintings were probably inspired by portraits of princes and ladies brought to the Safavid court by European envoys, but may also owe something to the Armenian community of the New Julfa quarter (see Isfahan, §III, I). Among the few oil paintings to survive from the early 18th century are two portraits of the Afsharid ruler Nadir Shah (r. 1736–47), one showing him half-length (London, Commonwealth Relations Trust), the other full-figure, seated (London, V&A, I.M. 20–1919). Both are in a thoroughly Europeanized style, perhaps modeled on English paintings seen during Nadir Shah's invasion of India. A contemporary but less sophisticated painting (untraced) shows a bridal pair, the bridegroom apparently one of Nadir Shah's sons.

A recognizably Persian style of painting developed in the work of Muhammad sadiq under the patronage of Muhammad Karim Khan (r. 1750–79), the Zand ruler at Shiraz. Muhammad Sadiq added still lifes and groups to the range of subjects. His figures are stiff, with modeled features very much in the European manner. Perspective is arbitrary, carpet-patterns are shown in ground plan, and landscapes rarely appear. A typical example of his work is Girl Playing a Mandolin (1769–70; Faroughi priv. col.). The other important artist of the time was Ja῾far, who produced a large oil painting of Muhammad Karim Khan and his Court (Shiraz, Pars Mus.). In this work the contrast between the stiff and formal courtiers and the easily lounging figure of the sovereign, pulling at his waterpipe and winking knowingly at the spectator, is well shown.

Sadiq's style was developed under the patronage of the Qajar dynasty (r. 1779–1924). The inscription on a painting of Shirin Visiting Farhad as he Carves Mt. Bisitun (1793–4; 1.45×0.88 m, priv. col.; see Robinson, 1985, no. 184) shows that the artist Mirza Baba was already working for the Qajars at Astarabad before they established their capital at Tehran. The painting shows an often-illustrated scene from Nizami's Khamsa (“Five poems”), but the most characteristic works of the early 19th century are life-size portraits of Fath ῾Ali Shah (r. 1797–1834). Mirza baba's best portrait of the Shah (1798–9; London, Commonwealth Relations Trust) was presented by the Shah to the East India Company in 1822. Mirza Baba's rival Mihr ῾ali also produced portraits of the Shah, of which the finest—perhaps the finest of all Persian oil paintings—shows the ruler full-length, wearing a robe of gold brocade embroidered with roses, the towering Qajar crown on his head, and the staff of Solomon, surmounted by a jeweled hoopoe, in his hand. The emphasis on the ruler's fine eyes, wasp-like waist and majestic beard alludes to his handsome appearance and personal vanity.

Other popular subjects were courtiers and princes. Muhammad hasan khan, for example, painted several fine portraits, such as Prince Holding a Flintlock (1.95×0.91 m; Tehran, Nigaristan Mus.), which em-phasize the sitter's clothing and textiles. An enormous mural by ῾Abdallah khan for the Nigaristan Palace in Tehran (1812–13; destr.) depicted Fath ῾Ali Shah enthroned with 12 of his sons and flanked by serried rows of court officials and foreign ambassadors. The painting, known from several small-scale copies (e.g. London, India Office Lib., Add. Or. MS. 1239–42), contained in all 118 rather stiff life-size figures. In the second half of Fath ῾Ali Shah's reign, a younger generation of court painters came to the fore: Sayyid mirza, a painter of royal portraits who worked in a more impressionistic style; Ahmad, who probably trained under Mihr ῾Ali and first imitated his style, but whose manner became more Westernized; and Muhammad shirin, who painted distinctive portraits of moon-faced beauties with huge eyes and tiny mouths.

In the mid-19th century all branches of painting were dominated by Abu῾l-Hasan Ghaffari (see Ghaffari, §II), known by the title Sani῾ al-Mulk (“Painter of the Kingdom”). His most celebrated work is a huge mural painted for the prime minister's palace (1856; now divided into seven panels, Tehran, Archaeol. Mus.). It depicts Nasir al-Din (r. 1848–96) enthroned between his sons and ministers and attended by courtiers and foreign envoys, in much the same way as ῾Abdallah Khan had depicted the court of Fath ῾Ali Shah. Sani῾ al-Mulk's forte was portraiture, uncompromising and sometimes merciless. His tradition was carried on by his nephew Muhammad (see Ghaffari, §III), known as Kamal al-Mulk (“Perfection of the Kingdom”). He studied in Europe, and his mature work, including portraits, landscapes and genre scenes, is completely Europeanized in style. Two other oil painters enjoyed the patronage of Nasir al-Din. Isma῾il jalayir, an early student in the Polytechnical School (Dar al-Funun) founded in Tehran in 1851, worked in the 1860s in an individual, though Westernized, style, sometimes entirely in grisaille. His paintings are infused with an atmosphere of gentle melancholy (see color pl. 3:I, fig. 1). The paintings of Mahmud Khan (1813–93), who was also Poet Laureate, consist mainly of landscapes and views of the royal palaces, executed with almost photographic realism, but he also produced several striking figural studies (e.g. Two Men Reading by Candlelight; exh. RA 1931; untraced).


  • B. W. Robinson: “The Court Painters of Fatḥ ῾Alī Shāh,” Eretz-Israel, vii (1964), pp. 94–105
  • S. J. Falk: Qajar Paintings: Persian Oil Paintings of the 18th and 19th Centuries (London, 1972)
  • E. G. Sims: “Five Seventeenth-century Persian Oil Paintings,” Persian and Mughal Art (exh. cat., London, Colnaghi's, 1976), pp. 223–51
  • J. Taboroff and L. S. Diba: “A Nineteenth-century Isfahan Painting,” Akten des VII. internationalen Kongresses für iranische Kunst und Archäeologie: München, 1976, pp. 628–34
  • B. W. Robinson: “Persian Painting in the Qajar Period,” Highlights of Persian Art, ed. R. Ettinghausen and E. Yarshater (Boulder, 1979), pp. 331–62
  • E. G. Sims: “The 17th century Safavid Sources for Qajar Oil Painting,” Islam in the Balkans: Persian Art and Culture of the 18th and 19th Centuries (Edinburgh, 1979), pp. 99–102
  • B. W. Robinson: “Persian Royal Portraiture and the Qajars,” Qajar Iran, ed. E. Bosworth and C. Hillenbrand (Edinburgh, 1983), pp. 291–310
  • M. A. Karimzada Tabrizi: Aḥvāl u āthār-i naqqāshān-i qadīm-i īrān [The lives and art of old painters of Iran] (London, 1985)
  • B. W. Robinson: “Lacquer, Oil-paintings and Later Arts of the Book,” Treasures of Islam (exh. cat., ed. T. Falk; Geneva, Mus. A. & Hist., 1985), pp. 176–206
  • B. W. Robinson: “Painting in the Post-Safavid Period,” The Arts of Persia, ed. R. W. Ferrier (New Haven and London, 1989), pp. 225–31
  • B. W. Robinson: “Persian Painting under the Zand and Qājār Dynasties,” From Nadir Shah to the Islamic Republic (1991), vii of The Cambridge History of Iran (Cambridge, 1968–91), pp. 870–89
  • Royal Persian Paintings: The Qajar Epoch 1785–1925 (exh. cat. by L. S. Diba with M. Ekhtiar; New York, Brooklyn Mus.; Los Angeles, CA, Armand Hammer Mus. A.; London, U. London, SOAS, Brunei Gal.; 1998–9)
  • Qajar Portraits (exh. cat. by J. Raby; London, U. London, SOAS, Brunei Gal., 1999)

II. Turkey

Oil painting on canvas has been known since the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II (r. 1444–81 with interruption) invited Gentile Bellini (?1429–1507) to Istanbul in 1479, and oil portraits of the sultans were collected in the Topkapı Palace at various times (see Dress, fig. 1). Until the 19th century, oil paintings were largely produced by traveling and émigré European artists for European patrons. Jean-Baptiste van Mour (1671–1737) and Jean-Etienne Liotard (1702–89) made their reputations with Orientalist works of Turkish subjects, and in the 19th century the European painters resident or traveling in the Ottoman Empire included such figures as Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps (1803–60) and Edward Lear (1812–88). European artists of lesser stature, such as the Italian count Amadeo Preziosi (1816–82), also settled in Turkey and appear to have sold their paintings to travelers and resident Europeans.

Although the European painting tradition had an impact on the traditional Turkish media of book illustration (see Illustration, §VI, D) and mural painting (see Architecture, §X, C, 2), at least from Bellini's time, an indigenous Turkish tradition of oil painting began only in the early 19th century. At that time the military academies of Istanbul started to teach linear perspective as an adjunct to producing images for military operations, and oil painting seems to have accompanied perspective, almost as an afterthought. A government-sponsored program of educating Ottoman artists in France ensued, and by the time of the Second Empire many Turkish painters were resident in Paris, studying at the studios of various painters. Ahmet ali and süleyman Seyyit, both painting instructors in military academies, were sent to Paris in the 1860s. After a preparatory course of language studies at the Ottoman School, they entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and worked with such academic painters as Gustave Boulanger (1824–88) and Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904). Osman hamdi, who was not a product of the military schools, also studied in Paris, before founding the Fine Arts Academy (Sanayi-i Nefise Mektebi) in Istanbul (see Istanbul, §II, B).

The early Turkish painters in oils followed the European genres of their masters. Still-life, landscape and topographical painting were especially popular, as these genres did not conflict with traditional religious views against depicting humans (see Subject matter). Nevertheless, some of the most talented of the early generation of Turkish painters also painted portraits. Osman Hamdi, who became an influential figure, seems to have openly flouted traditional Islamic values, producing a prodigious number of canvases incorporating details from Istanbul monuments and works of art to lend authenticity to his work (see color pl. 3:I, fig. 2). Although Hamdi Bey, as he was known in the West, never seems to have produced nude studies or to have depicted the nude in his finished paintings, his work Mihrab shows a woman in a décolleté entari (traditional dress) sitting in a rahle (Koran-stand) in front of a tiled mihrab with copies of the Koran in disarray under her feet. This work seems almost calculated to offend religious sensibilities and contrasts remarkably with the gentle still lifes of Ahmet Ali and Süleyman Seyyit and the somewhat naive architectural landscapes of the military-trained Ahmet Ragıp (fl. 1890s), Hüseyin Zekaî Pasha (1860–1919) and Ahmet Ziya Akbulut (1869–1938).

By the end of the 19th century, Ottoman painters in oils were working in a wide variety of genres, producing not only Orientalist genre paintings but seascapes, portraits and Istanbul street scenes. The artists tended to be in the thrall of the academic painters, being for the most part untouched by the realism of Gustave Courbet (1819–77) and Edouard Manet (1832–83). Drawing on a variety of European sources, their work ranged from the meticulous architectural studies of Ahmet Ziya Akbulut to the elegant society portraits of Mihri Müşfik (1886–1954), one of Turkey's first significant women painters in oils, and to the popular Barbizon-inspired landscapes of Ali Riza (1858–1930), affectionately dubbed Hoca (“teacher”) by his many students and friends. One of the most capable of the second generation of painters was the Ottoman prince Abdülmecid (1868–1944), who, after the deposition of the last sultan Mehmed VI Vahdettin, in 1922, became caliph until that office was abolished by Atatürk in 1924. Given the traditional Islamic injunctions against figural painting, it is ironic that this rather retiring figure excelled in portraiture and genre scenes; his best-known work, Beethoven in the Saray (Istanbul, Mus. F.A.), depicts a musical afternoon in the sultan's palace, with a piano trio performing for onlookers in front of a plaster bust of Beethoven, with the artist himself depicted listening at the right.


  • M. Cezar: Sanatta batı’ya açılış ve Osman Hamdi [Osman Hamdi and Western trends in art] (Istanbul, 1971)
  • T. Erol: “Painting in Turkey in XIX and Early XXth Century,” A History of Turkish Painting (Seattle and London, 1988), pp. 87–234
  • S. Başkan: Contemporary Turkish Painters (Ankara, 1991)

III. India

Oil painting was introduced to India in the late 18th century by European, especially British, portrait painters. For example, Johan Zoffany (1733–1810), a German-born painter active in England, earned a fortune in Calcutta and Lucknow between 1783 and 1789 producing portraits of the colonial and local aristocracy. The Daniell brothers, Thomas (1749–1840) and William (1769–1837), cultivated the British market for oil paintings and drawings of the Mysore War. When they returned from India in 1794, they worked up their drawings of Indian landscapes into colored aquatints and oils, which were exhibited at the British Institution and the Royal Academy. These immigrant artists established Western-style oil painting as the medium to be preferred over indigenous pictorial conventions.


  • Johan Zoffany, 1733–1810 (exh. cat. by M. Webster; London, N.P.G., 1976)
  • M. Archer: India and British Portraiture, 1770–1825 (London, 1979), pp. 130–77
  • M. Shellim: India and the Daniells (London, 1979)
  • M. Archer: Early Views of India: The Picturesque Journeys of Thomas and William Daniell, 1786–1794 (London, 1980)
  • R. Chaterjee: “European Oil Painting and the Mughal Experience,” Indian Studies: Essays Presented in Memory of Prof. Nihar Rajan Ray (Delhi, 1985), pp. 107–16
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