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῾Abd al-Samad

The Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture What is This? Provides in-depth historical and cultural information on over a thousand years of Islamic art and architecture

    ῾Abd al-Samad

    (b. before 1517; fl. c.1535–1600).

    Iranian miniature painter, calligrapher and courtier, active also in India. Trained in Safavid Iran, ῾Abd al-Samad migrated to India, where he became director of the Mughal painting workshops under the emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605). In this key position, he influenced the development of Mughal painting in the second half of the 16th century more than any other artist.

    I. Iran and Central Asia, before 1555

    No inscribed works by ῾Abd al-Samad are known from the period when he worked in Safavid Iran, though attributions have been proposed, such as a depiction of the assassination of Khusraw Parviz from the copy of the Shāhnāma made for Shah Tahmasp I (r. 1524–76). Already a mature painter, in 1544 ῾Abd al-Samad paid homage to Akbar's father, the Mughal emperor Humayun (r. 1530–40; 1555–6), when the exiled ruler was given refuge at the court of the Safavid shah Tahmasp at Tabriz. In 1549 ῾Abd al-Samad joined Humayun in Kabul, where an interim capital had been established. During the immediately succeeding years, together with other painters, he regularly presented works to the emperor on various occasions including Nawruz, the Persian New Year. Two Young Men in a Garden, dated 985/1551, is one such illustration by the artist later mounted in the Muraqqa῾-i gulshan (Tehran, Gulistan Pal. Lib., MSS 663–4), an album of variously dated pictures and calligraphies formed by Humayun's grandson Jahangir (r. 1605–27) that contains most of ῾Abd al-Samad's surviving works. Several literary references to New Year's presentations can be matched with paintings included in the Gulshan Album, all of which are in a conservative Persian style. In fact, it is primarily through the patron and subjects that the Mughal designation can be given; in style they remain strongly Safavid.

    II. India, 1555 and after

    In 1555 ῾Abd al-Samad traveled with the imperial party to India where he became a leading member of the imperial workshops under Akbar. The young Akbar himself studied painting with ῾Abd al-Samad, one of whose greatest works of this time is Akbar Presenting a Painting to Humayun in a Tree House (Tehran, Gulistan Pal. Lib., MSS 1663–4). Some time around 1569 ῾Abd al-Samad succeeded Mir sayyid ῾ali as director of a 15-year project to copy and illustrate the great Dāstān-i Amīr Hamza (“Tales of Amir Hamza”) or Hamzanāma (“Tales of Hamza”; 1558–73; dispersed). In contrast to his predecessor, ῾Abd al-Samad oversaw the completion of ten volumes and one thousand illustrations in a seven-year period; Mir Sayyid ῾Ali had directed the completion of only four volumes in the same length of time. Perhaps in part because of this organizational ability, ῾Abd al-Samad took on increasingly prominent administrative roles: director of the imperial mint (1577), overseer of commerce (1582), manager of the royal household (1583) and finance minister for the province of Multan (1586). His son, Muhammad Sharif, became a friend of the young Prince Salim, later Jahangir. Like his father, he too was an artist given important administrative responsibilities within the governmental hierarchy. No other painter's family is known to have held comparable power.

    ῾Abd al-Samad was an extraordinary craftsman, and his pictures are full of minute detail describing the patterns of architectural tilework, costumes and foliage. A contemporary account also praises his ability to paint elaborate scenes on grains of rice. All of this evidently appealed to Humayun, although Akbar, in his early years as emperor, demanded lively narrative scenes rather than virtuoso displays of technique.

    The earliest work made by ῾Abd al-Samad for Akbar may be Prince Akbar Hunting (Copenhagen, Davids Saml.), datable c.1556. The attribution is suggested by a comparison with the last work known by the artist, Khusraw Hunting, from a copy of Nizami's Khamsa (“Five poems”; 1595; London, BL, Or. MS. 12208, fol. 82a). That the paintings are so close in sensibility and style is evidence of the painter's tremendous conservatism. Yet, while his own style is not innovative, he clearly encouraged experimentalism and novelty among those painters whose work he directed. The Hamzanāma is the single most vital and inventive Mughal manuscript, and it is in the last ten volumes—the portion of the project that he oversaw—that this character is firmly established. Over 100 artists and craftsmen were involved in this effort, and in many cases they had been brought to the imperial studios from elsewhere. That a new and original style evolved during this process is testament as much to ῾Abd al-Samad's organizational skills as to his artistic abilities.

    There are relatively few works attributable to ῾Abd al-Samad during the early years of Akbar's reign, perhaps because he was so involved with the completion of the Hamzanāma. Among works of his middle period in India is Two Camels Fighting (USA, priv. col.), an important copy and adaptation of a famous work by the great 15th-century Persian painter Bihzad. A popular motif in Mughal art, the work also bears an important inscription noting the painter's advanced age and paying homage to his son Muhammad Sharif.

    ῾Abd al-Samad was clearly a strong personality who influenced both his son and other artists. When Akbar discovered the painter Daswanth, he sent him to ῾Abd al-Samad for training, and the younger artist's early works show that he initially adopted a style recognizably close to that of ῾Abd al-Samad, whose use of dark tonalities, especially for landscape, and lack of interest in adopting techniques drawn from European prints (widely available and highly influential with other painters) were personal characteristics. Also typical was ῾Abd al-Samad's insistence on the prime importance of the picture surface. This is shown in Jamshid Writing on a Rock (see fig., 1588; Washington, DC, Freer), in which the solid gold sky negates spatial depth. The gold also creates a sense of opulence and wealth, another important element of ῾Abd al-Samad's style. His figures, however, do not have the individualized personality so effortlessly created by such artists as Basawan or Bishan Das. Faces represent types.

    This and ῾Abd al-Samad's other late works, such as the scene of Khusraw Hunting, were again in the mainstream of Mughal art. This is not because he had changed, but because by the 1590s Mughal painting had come to have many of those values he had so long championed. Just as the technical skills of Mughal artists developed and matured, so too imperial taste became more epicurean. Densely detailed, technically immaculate compositions in which no individual detail predominates became the rule and replaced the earlier taste for compositional excitement and strong color.

    At the end of the Akbar period (c.1600) painting moved away from the style of ῾Abd al-Samad, presenting instead compositionally simple scenes that stress the definition and interaction of human personalities—a skill in which ῾Abd al-Samad showed little interest. That this could not happen until after his death is further evidence of the power he held over the imperial workshops.


    • EWA: “Abdu ῾s-Samad”; Enc. Iran: “Abd al-Ṣamad Šīrāzi”
    • M. B. Dickson and S. C. Welch: “Abdus Samad,” The Houghton Shahnameh (Cambridge, MA, 1981), pp. 192–200
    • M. C. Beach: Early Mughal Painting (Cambridge, MA, 1987)
    • R. Skelton: “Iranian Artists in the Service of Humayun,” Marg, xlvi/2 (1994), pp. 33–48
    • S. R. Canby: “The Horses of ῾Abd us-Samad,” Mughal Masters: Further Studies, ed. A. K. Das (Bombay, 1998), pp. 14–29
    • A. K. Das: Mughal Masters: Further Studies (Mumbai, 1998)
    • J. Seyller: “A Mughal Code of Connoisseurship,” Muqarnas, xvii (2000), pp. 176–202
    • The Adventures of Hamza (exh. cat. by J. Seyller; Washington, DC, Sackler Gal.; New York, Brooklyn Mus., and elsewhere; 2002–3)
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