The Safavid shahs of Persia entertained a real interest in European art, at a period when Europeans had nothing but disdain for the art of Persia. Schwartz publishes on the subject once again.
When in 1623 the world-famous, widely feared Dutch East India Company (VOC) sent its first delegates to the court of the great Persian shah ‘Abbas in Isafahan, the envoys had the surprise of their life. To the Persians, they were nothing but the nth bunch of Franks – their name, since the Crusades, for all Europeans – coming to pay tribute to the king of kings and to supplicate his favor. There was no question of the kind of gunship diplomacy the VOC employed in many parts of Africa and Asia, nor even of anticipating respect. Few at the court at Isfahan had ever heard of the Dutch Republic or its company of marauding merchants. The visitors were welcome to stand in line and wait until it pleased ‘Abbas to receive them.
The surprise came when the leader of the delegation, Huybert Visnich, ran into a Dutch painter he had met a few years before in Aleppo, Jan Lucasz van Hasselt, and found out that he had become a painter to the shah and a member of his inner circle. On van Hasselt’s recommendation, Visnich and his party were put up in a town house and were granted trading rights in Persia. Within a few short years, the purchases and resale of Persian silk, paid for with the proceeds of sales of “spices and condiments, foodstuffs, dyes, drugs, metals, steel products, wood, cloth, tobacco, porcelain, Japanese lacquer, and above all silver” (D.W. Davies) had turned Persia into the richest of the fourteen VOC stations outside Batavia. And this was made possible only because the shah appreciated the art of a Dutch painter who was and still is totally unknown in his own country.
This is only the first of the amazing stories to emerge from the VOC archives concerning the role of Dutch artists in Persia. During each decade of the half-century between 1605 and 1656, in the heyday of the Safavid dynasty and of the Dutch penetration of Asia, one Dutch artist or another is recorded as being a painter to the shah. All of them enjoyed absurdly lavish emoluments and all of them came to a bad end, mainly on account of their own greed or intemperance.
I did not know this when I was invited to Tehran in 2006 to deliver three lectures on Rembrandt, at the Dutch-British school, a Tehran cultural center to which the Dutch embassy had contributed an exhibition on Rembrandt’s etchings, and the residence of the Dutch ambassador, Radinck van Vollenhoven. On the latter occasion, I added an addendum on Rembrandt and Persia, a connection that was the subject of a book with that title by my late friend Leonard Slatkes. Ambassador van Vollenhoven was kind enough to recommend me as a contributor to a volume on Dutch-Iranian relations, edited by Martine Gosselink and Dirk Tang, that came out in 2009. It was through my research for the essay “Safavid favour and Company scorn: the fortunes of Dutch painters to the shah” in that book that I learned about Jan Lucasz van Hasselt. I am taking the liberty of putting up the complete volume, Iran and the Netherlands: interwoven through the ages, which is unobtainable.
Being the only art historian in the Netherlands who had delved into this material, I was subsequently invited in 2009 to take part in a group project on the dispersal of Dutch art in Asia at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIAS). The writings of the group and several colleagues who participated in a symposium at NIAS in January 2010 have now been published in excellent form by Amsterdam University Press, edited by the project leaders Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann and Michael North.
To my great satisfaction, the publisher chose for the cover image a Persian miniature –no, the Persian miniature – that speaks most eloquently of the interest of Persian artists in Europe. It is a posthumous portrait by Mu’in Musawwir of his master Riza-y ‘Abassi, shown as he was making a miniature of a European. The inscription tells us that Mu’in began work on this seemingly fleeting image in 1635, the year of Riza’s death, and that he did not finish it until 1673. Firestone Library, Princeton University.
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© Gary Schwartz 2014. Published on the Schwartzlist on 28 September 2014.
On Thursday afternoon, 25 September, there was a lovely celebration at the Rubenianum in Antwerp of the retirement of Paul Huvenne as director of the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen. I have known Paul for over thirty years, after he was recommended to me as a bright young newcomer by David Freedberg. He was rather shy and uncertain then, but he learned self-assurance, or its credible semblance, in the meantime, as director of the Rubens House Museum and then the Royal Museum of Antwerp. His support, from the first meeting of CODART on, was indispensable for the success of that organization. At the ceremony, I took a photograph of Paul with my successor as director of CODART, Gerdien Verschoor.
Paul was presented with a printed friendship album with 76 contributions. The friends were asked to write a brief personal text in the spirit of Paul’s commitment to art as a kind of visual thinking. The book was cleverly titled Denkbeelden / Beelddenken: Writing in images / Thinking in images. All the contributions were accompanied not by reproductions of the objects concerning which we chose to write, but by renditions of them by the British artist Nick Andrews.
To clarify what I was talking about, I show the page from a 1618 Bible edition that was the subject of my tribute.
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