Details & Cataloguing

Arts of the Islamic World


A Safavid voided silk velvet, metal thread strip and bouclé figural panel, Persia
the textile approximately 74 by 107cm.at widest point, overall dimensions including mount approximately 81 by 113cm.
early 17th century
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Private collection since at least 1917

Catalogue Note

With its graceful drawing, brilliant colours, and meticulous execution of a very complex structure, the panel offered here is one of the finest examples of Safavid textile art.  Employing voided silk velvet enriched with metal thread and bouclé in a highly detailed composition, this panel is comparable with velvets in some of the most prestigious museums and collections around the world.  The present piece depicts two lavishly-dressed lady falconers, identical in design to a panel in the Keir Collection; see Friedrich Spuhler, Islamic Carpets and Textiles in the Keir Collection, London, 1978, p. 184.  In the offered lot we see much of its vivid and diverse colouring, whereas the Keir Collection velvet has faded and possibly sustained some fire damage, see Spuhler, ibid, p. 189.  Two larger pieces show this pair of women falconers as well as additional pair of women bearing fruit and drink, one in the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, and one in the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, see respectively Carol Bier, Woven from the Soul, Spun from the Heart, Washington, D.C., 1987, no. 2, pp.140-141, and Hali, 42, p. 100.   Spuhler, op.cit. p.189 and Bier, op.cit. p. 140 mention, but do not illustrate, an additional piece with this composition in the National Museum of India in New Delhi.  The present lot is here published for the first time, having been in a family collection from before 1917. 

The composition of elegantly attired figures can be found in other Persian velvets, such as a group with pairs of women holding flowers in a vertical repeat, and surrounded by flowering shrubs of similar drawing to those in the velvet offered here.  Three examples of this composition are published, one sold Sotheby's New York, December 11, 1991, lot 87, now in the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar, see Jon Thompson, Silk, Doha, 2004, p. 40, another in the Keir Collection, see Spuhler, op. cit., pp. 183 and 188 and another in the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, see Kahlenberg, M., "A Mughal Personage Velvet," Burlington Magazine, 115, November 1973, pl. 22.  While the languid figures, elegant long robes, and delicately pointed shoes are typical of the Safavid fashion, the small hats and the deep necklines of their bodices indicate the presence of European influences. Such foreign influences were common in Persia at the time, when stimuli from both western and eastern cultures were welcome at the Safavid court. European influences became particularly strong in the 1600s, when European artists visited the royal courts in Isphahan and when Shah Abbas II sent some of his court painters to Rome to study Italian art, see Spuhler, op. cit., p. 188.

Falconry and hunting, favorite pastimes of the Persian elite, were much-preferred subjects among Safavid artists and appeared in many media from textiles to miniatures. The topic was so common with weavers that it even gave rise to a particular rug type, the hunting carpet. A type of hunting, falconry was particularly appreciated for "its protocol, the detailed training and grooming of the birds, the merits of the various species, and the thrill of the hunt," see Bier, op. cit., no. 10, p. 154. Both Persian and western accounts described Safavid fascination with falconry that was not only seen as a popular pastime but also a symbol of sophistication and wealth. In his book, Travels in Persia, Thomas Herbert gave a vivid depiction of the colourful entourage of a Persian lord. According to Herbert, the train included "thirty comely youths, who were vested in crimson satin coats; their tulipants were silk and silver... they were girded with rich hilted swords in embroidered scabbards; they had hawks upon their fists, each hood set with stones of value," see Thomas Herbert, Travels in Persia, 1627-1629, London, 1928, p. 79. Later in his book, Herbert praised falcons for their role in the hunt and notes that these birds were used more effectively than dogs, see ibid., p. 243. A velvet fragment in the collection of the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., see Bier op. cit., no 10, p. 155, and sections of the Rosenborg Velvets, see Carol Bier, The Persian Velvets at Rosenborg, Copenhagen, 1995, p. 38, show male falconers dressed in a fashion similar to that described by Herbert in his journals; long robes tied with wide sashes, now called Polish sashes, and wearing turbans. Its traditional Persian representations suggest that falconry was considered an activity for men, and thus it is interesting to see two female falconers depicted in the lot offered here. Just like their male counterparts in other velvets, the two ladies here are equipped with the general fittings for the hunt, such as pigeon wings tied around their waists used as lures and the cord and hood for the falcon. The small dog led on a leash by one of the women is the only detail that is not included in representations of male falconers. Spuhler suggests that, as a result of the above-mentioned European influences, the ladies are an allegory of the hunt, similar to the goddess Diana, and were adapted from western culture, see Spuhler, op. cit., p.189. The aforementioned panel in the Cooper-Hewitt Museum is intact at its sides and shows a complete horizontal repeat displaying another pair of ladies tending a garden. As each woman is engaged in a different activity, they could be understood as allegories of the four seasons; a regular theme in western art.  However, as falconry was an activity reserved for the elite, another reason to depict two elegant ladies dressed in lavish garbs as falconers, might have simply been a desire from the artist to further stress the sophistication and status of the women. Whatever the meaning, the theme must have been a popular one with surviving examples of this design executed in different colors. The foliage surrounding the two huntresses includes a range of flowers depicted in great detail. The willowy carnations and irises, along with some of the more stylized palmette motifs, were executed with the same care as the figures, showing that the weaver was determined to produce a piece that was exquisite in every detail. These floral motifs are closely related to flora adorning two velvet panels in the Danish Museum of Decorative Arts, see Bier, The Persian Velvets at Rosenborg, p. 37. The cloudband-like formations in the upper right corner of the image reflect Chinese influences that were, as mentioned before, prevalent in Safavid art.    

The attention to subtle details, such as the folds of the drapery, recalls miniatures rather than other brocades or carpets. The technique of these velvets of extremely fine weave enabled the art of the miniaturist to be most successfully translated into a textile. All of the velvets cited and the lot offered here illustrate characteristics of painted images by contemporaneous Persian artists. It has been suggested that these velvets exhibit stylistic hallmarks of one particular Safavid painter, Reza Abbasi, whose oeuvre contains predominantly small-scale single page paintings which were assembled in albums of miniatures, or muraqqa, and collected and admired by contemporaneous patrons, see Spuhler, op. cit., p. 187. In fact, two of the vertically oriented velvets (those in Qatar and Ontario)  bear the signature "work (of) Safi" which may refer to Shafi 'Abbasi, the son of Reza who followed his father as a miniature artist to the court. The elongated forms executed in gentle lines and precise drawing echo such works of Reza and his son. Similarly to his pieces on paper, the composition of the current velvet is structured with defined images superimposed on a blank background. The crisp yet naturalistic folds of the ladies' garments, along with their gentle facial expressions, are also typical to Reza Abbasi's hand. The brilliant colours of these velvets echo those miniatures; see Arthur Upham Pope ed., A Survey of Persian Art, London and New York, 1939, p. 2104.

Textiles, and particularly silk velvets, were among the most treasured objects in Safavid Persia. According to travel journals, the cities of Yazd, Isphahan, Kashan and Tabriz were centers of the silk industry, with the most important court manufactories located in Isphahan. Luxury fabrics from Persia had a solid reputation throughout the known world. In Europe, Safavid silk velvets were much-admired for their very high-quality construction, detailed design, luxurious material, and overall exotic appearance. Members of the European elite were not the only admirers of Safavid textiles, and Asian monarchs, such as the King of Siam, also tried to acquire Persian silks in great quantities, see Patricia L. Baker, Islamic Textiles, London, 1995, p. 109. Due to the prestige of their textile art abroad, Persian rulers often sent silk velvets as diplomatic gifts to western courts. The most famous examples of such presents are the aforementioned Rosenborg Velvets and a piece originally given to the Signoria of Venice, now in the Museo Civico Correr, see Spuhler, op. cit., p. 164. Velvets gifted for political reasons were always of the highest quality and were made of the finest materials, such as silk enriched with gold and silver foil, to demonstrate the wealth and sophistication of the seventeenth-century Persian court. While in Europe lengths of these precious textiles were often kept intact in order to fully impress the western onlooker, such as was the case of the Rosenborg velvets, in Persia velvets were utilized in various ways. Large panels were sometimes used to construct ceremonial tents, while others were cut and made into items of clothing, often without preserving the symmetry of the composition. A velvet coat with figures, executed in a similar manner as those in the current piece is in the Royal Armory, Stockholm, see Pope, op. cit., p. 1060.

The velvet panel offered here is an extraordinary example of Persian textile art from an era when woven treasures were among the most appreciated and revered forms of artistry. Safavid figural velvets rarely appear on the market with the most recent one having been sold Sotheby's London, October 14, 1998, lot 37 and now in the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar, see Thompson, op. cit., p. 36. The extraordinary state of preservation, the outstandingly high quality of craftsmanship, as well as its beauty and rarity, make this velvet one of most sophisticated weavings ever achieved and one of the true masterpieces produced by the workshops of the Safavid court.                      

Arts of the Islamic World