A rare Safavid oil painting of an African soldier Persia, Isfahan, circa 1680-90

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Lot 28R
A rare Safavid oil painting of an African soldier
Persia, Isfahan, circa 1680-90

Sold for £ 375,250 (US$ 521,248) inc. premium
A rare Safavid oil painting of an African soldier
Persia, Isfahan, circa 1680-90
oil on canvas, affixed with a fragmentary old label on the stretcher reading Portrait of an Indian Officer
122 x 79.5 cm.

Footnotes

  • Provenance
    Private English aristocratic collection, London.
    Acquired by the vendor's mother in Jaipur during a visit to the court of Maharajah Man Singh II in the mid 1960s.

    Bonhams have the privilege of presenting an enigmatic and unique painting depicting a flamboyant African soldier in Safavid Persia. Immensely rare, the present work is quite likely to be one of the first ever depictions of an African subject in Persian oil painting, and one of the earliest artistic records of the black African community whose descendants continue to reside in the Gulf region.

    Isfahan was referred to as 'half the world' (nisf-i jahan) by the 16th Century. Shah 'Abbas (reg. 1588-1629) had moved his capital from Qazwin, Safavid political power had grown, there was a flowering of culture in Persia, and Isfahan, in particular, became a nexus of trade and cultural exchange. Along with the Ottoman Sultan and the 'Grand Mughal', Safavid Persia and Shah 'Abbas ('The Sophy' or 'The Great Sophy', an expression probably deriving from a mishearing of 'Safavi'), were touchstones of grandeur and exoticism in Western consciousness at the time.

    One thinks of the striking image, spread across a double page in a folio volume, of the Maidan-i Naqsh-i Jahan in Isfahan, in Voyages de Corneille le Brun par la Moscovie, en Perse, et aux Orientales (Amsterdam 1718) – where the broken lines of the tents of the bazaar, where all sorts of business was being transacted amongst several nationalities, contrast with the more austere lines of the Safavid architecture surrounding them. As Cornelius de Bruyn's accompanying account put it: 'The greater part of this plaza is full of tents, where all kinds of things are sold [...] One continually sees a prodigious crowd of people and among other things a large number of people of quality who come and go to the court' (see S. R. Canby, Shah 'Abbas: the Remaking of Iran (London 2009), pp. 260-261, no. 127, illustrated).

    And one also thinks of the group of twenty-one paintings discussed by Eleanor Sims in her essay below – the depictions of people of various ethnicities, genders, in different forms of dress, alongside types of decorative objects - and so to our painting of a young African man.

    While the painting is – as Eleanor Sims argues below – a type, and one playing on variations in Safavid fashion, it must surely refer ultimately to a real-life soldier, a musketeer or tofangchi, a division of the Persian army primarily composed of foreign mercenaries. A figure (albeit one with white skin) which appears in the Kaempfner Album (produced in Isfahan in 1684-85) in the British Museum is highly reminiscent of our subject, in pose, weaponry and dress: the hat with its plume, the two straps which pass over his shoulders (to a backpack?), the accoutrements around his waist, the red-orange breeches, and the white banded gaiters. The British Museum catalogue describes him as a royal bodyguard.

    Leaving aside western Europeans, most foreigners in Safavid Persia, whether free or slaves, were closer to home – they were from the Caucasus, Georgia, Circassia, or notably, Armenian, in the flourishing town of New Julfa. But an African must have been in a minority, by geographical accident (and less common than in Ottoman Turkey, where black Africans, often eunuchs, were more commonly in positions of power at court). Our figure demonstrates his confidence in his rank and profession, his dress and (to some degree, at least) his wealth, create a well-to-do image, almost dandyish.

    Eleanor Sims traces his relation in this respect to the 'Tehran Suite' of paintings. In addition, both figures in an Afsharid oil painting, done around fifty years later, wear long coats with the same horizontal frogging on the chest (albeit with much more embroidered decoration on the coats), and the male figure wears the same vertically-striped undershirt - and these figures are of a notably higher class (the catalogue description speculated whether the male might be a son of Nadir Shah). See Sotheby's, Fine Oriental Manuscripts and Miniatures, 22nd & 23rd May 1986, lot 175 (dated to circa 1735-45).

    Whether he was a slave, who had come to Persia via the Arab trade from East Africa and the Indian Ocean into the Gulf (whose descendants to this day form an Afro-Iranian community in the south of the country); whether he had been freed as a condition of service in the Persian army; whether he was a free man who had ended up in the melting-pot of 17th Century Isfahan; or whether he is strictly a 'type', perhaps made African to cater to an existing European interest in blackamoors, and other signifiers of 'the exotic' (especially if he had a female companion painting, as Sims suggests) - we will doubtless never know. What does seem to be clear is that this painting is a rare, perhaps unique portrayal of an African in the Safavid army, and of an African in Persia.


    An African Youth
    by Eleanor Sims

    Could a picture offer any greater degree of 'exotic' than does this oil-painted figure of a young African wearing imaginatively interpreted 17th-century Safavid Persian clothing?

    He is one among a presently recorded number (21) of large rectangular pictures, painted in oil on canvas. All are single figures; all are dressed in fine 17th-Century Safavid clothing; all comfortably fill their picture-space. Their dress, especially that of the women, usually also distinguishes their ethnicity and religious affiliation: Muslim Persian, Armenian and Georgian Christian. Several men among the 21 may instead be Europeans in Safavid garb, but they are the exceptions within the genre. And with a different exception, none is either signed or dated; all but three are anonymous.

    Such paintings were almost surely commissioned by Europeans in the cosmopolitan melange of peoples visiting Safavid Isfahan in that century (Eleanor Sims, 'Five Seventeenth-Century Persian Oil Paintings', Persian and Mughal Art, ed. Michael Goedhuis, London 1976, pp. 223-32). Struck by the 'exotic' inhabitants they saw, many wanted images to take with them, when they returned to their own countries. English travellers seem to have been especially desirous of owning these 'exotic' personages, especially when they could be executed on a scale not unlike the oil-painted portraits already hanging on their walls. Indeed, many can be connected with houses or families: in Wiltshire (see Mary Arnold-Forster, Basset Down: An Old Country House, London 1949, p. 147; Eleanor Sims, 'The "Exotic" Image: Oil-Painting in Iran in the Later 17th and the Early 18th Centuries', in The Phenomenon of 'Foreign' in Oriental Art, ed. Annette Hagedorn, Wiesbaden 2006, pp. 135–40 passim; eadem, 'Six Seventeenth-century Oil Paintings from Safavid Persia', in God is Beautiful and Loves Beauty: The Object in Islamic Art and Culture, New Haven & London 2013, pp. 343, 346-47), and in Northamptonshire, (eadem, 'Five Seventeenth-Century Persian Oil Paintings', pp. 241-48). Three are known to have been in English royal possession since the middle of the 17th century (1651; noted on the Royal Collection Trust Website; two published in Epic Iran: 5000 Years of Culture, J. Curtis, I. Sarikhani-Sandmann, and T. Stanley, London 2020, cat. 183-84). But that this youth is black makes him an especially exotic figure, even for 17th-century Isfahan.

    He stands in an open landscape whose horizon is at mid-figure height. The fore- and middle-ground show rows of grassy tufts against bare ground; four trees, two on each side of the figure, stand in the distant middle-ground, and a stream, indistinctly seen at the right, angles toward the upper right of the picture, while atmospheric cumulus clouds fill the broad, open sky. In the left background is a round, dark brick structure crowned with five small domes, four smaller ones more-or-less surrounding a larger, higher one: a pigeon-tower, albeit the red-and-white trim seems somewhat odd (see Guy Petherbridge, 'Vernacular Architecture', p. 188 (ill.), text p. 207, in Architecture of the Islamic World, ed. George Michell, London 1978).

    It is a landscape with contemporary parallels (in other Persian oil-paintings, as well as in other media and on a different scale); that in the suite of three figures (Sims, op. cit. (1976), pp. 241-8), now in Tehran, in the Sa'dabad Palace Museum, is strikingly similar in its components, if not in its quality of execution. It is comprised of two richly dressed women, a Persian facing right and a Georgian facing left; the third figure, a youth more soberly garbed in the costume of a footman, also faces right. Each stands in an open landscape; even the pigeon-tower in the left middle distance, has a parallel in the painting of the Georgian lady, a round, castellated structure also in the left background. As figural types, however, these three are distinctly more typical of the genre, and probably more frequently encountered in later Safavid Isfahan, than was a handsome African youth.

    Several aspects of the 'Footman' offer additional parallels: headgear, footgear, pose. The hats of the two youths are both tall tan felt cones, with high pointed crowns and split brims, albeit differently trimmed. Their feet are shown simply as repeated forms, and the footgear shows little distinction between right and left, another characteristic feature of the genre (and probably also the period). The 'Footman' stands facing right, his right arm cocked at the waist; so does the African youth, whose right arm bends to hold the dagger tucked into his belt.

    Between head and feet, however, his garb displays a marked departure from the recognizably Persian garments of the 'Tehran Suite': in part, it is identifiably Safavid, and Persian, but in part it is unidentifiable.

    Details such as the waisted silhouette of the red coat, the vertically striped under-robe just seen at the neck, the stiff golden frogging with its buttons of wadded cotton, the pointed sleeves, the overlapping closing (shown only below the waist), and the black-and white cording at all visible edges: these features are all characteristic of 17th-century Safavid Persian clothing; yet the garment is peculiarly short, not even knee-length. Below it, loose reddish trousers are tucked into something white encasing his legs below the knees and above the ankles; almost certainly not boots, but more like puttees or gaiters, they, too, have a decoratively exotic look, white and encircled with four narrow green stripes at regular intervals. They, and the peculiar green 'trefoils' at the heels of the white footwear, are almost certainly not functional but ornamental. His flat-heeled white shoes are almost certainly separate from the white gaiters—despite the coloristic continuity: another improbably exotic and imaginative feature of his garb. His wide dark belt, leather or fabric, is ornamented with metal plaques, a larger one at the front; from the belt hangs a vertical strap ornamented with more elaborate golden plaques. A pair of small black purses hang at his waist, below the dark belt; the triangular flaps are entirely edged in gold, as is each side-edge, and their fronts are gold-embroidered; they would have held something precious: coins, or jewels. If they are not, themselves, the most exotic feature of his garb, their origin, their date, even their precise function remains uncertain; no immediate parallels come to mind. And utterly inexplicable is the dark fabric "accessory" slung over both shoulders; faintly edged in green, it narrows in shape as it comes down the chest, the two sides joining at the waist and ending in a barely-seen point below the belt, between the vertical strap and the purse at the left. From both ears hang large pear-shaped gems suspended on large golden rings. The high tan hat, worn at a distinctly jaunty angle, rather suggests a tricorne worn backward, the turned-up brim edged in red trefoils; still more panache is conferred by the thick white plume.

    To reiterate: partially identifiably Safavid Persian, but in part unidentifiable, it is hard to escape feeling that so imaginatively exotic an ensemble is a 'variation on the theme of Safavid fashion', a creation of fancy, a fantasy: almost a pastiche.

    It is true that, in contrast to his fanciful garb, his armament and their details are quite correct for the later 17th century in Persia: musket, sword, and curved dagger, the powder-horn (seen from the top, as a silvery circle) hanging on a golden chain across his body, and the flint-striker hanging from his belt.

    One more shared feature offers at least a sense of his sources: the stiff golden frogging above the waist. It is remarkably similar to the stiff golden frogging on the red brocaded robes worn by the two ladies of the 'Tehran Suite' figures (Sims, op. cit. (1976), pp. 242-44). Such an unimportant but notable similarity, in addition to the details of the youths' hats and shoes and poses, as well as the composition and content of the landscapes in which all four figures are placed, suggest that the anonymous painter of the 'African Youth' was acquainted with the work of the anonymous painter of the 'Tehran Suite'. He may even have been local to Isfahan, to judge by the pigeon-tower he puts into the background. Perhaps he presented his 'African Youth' in such unusual garb because Africans were so unusually encountered in the late 17th century, even in cosmopolitan and Safavid Isfahan?

    The African youth smiles gently; he is red-lipped, unbearded, and very dark-skinned. Did he ever have a female companion, as the genre, and most of the other 21 paintings presently recorded, suggest would have been the case? She would surely also have been very young, black and beautiful, standing in a similar landscape, smilingly facing the youth; and she would have been garbed in some equally fanciful interpretation of the dress of a Safavid Persian lady—Persian, Armenian, or Georgian. We shall probably never know for certain, hypothesize as we might. For now, let us simply say that the 'African Youth in Persian Garb' is an astonishingly unusual and exotic later 17th-century Persian vision of a person from 'parts unknown'.

    With great thanks to Nabil Saidi, Margaret Edwards, and the staff at Bonhams.

    © Eleanor Sims

    Important Notice to Buyers
    Some countries e.g., the US, prohibit or restrict the purchase by its citizens (wherever located) and/or the import of certain types of Iranian-origin works. As a convenience to buyers, Bonhams has marked with the symbol R all lots of Iranian (Persian) origin. It is each buyer's responsibility to ensure that they do not bid or import a lot in contravention of the sanctions or trade embargoes that apply to them.

Saleroom notices

  • Additional note: it has been suggested that the name 'Cox' (in chalk on the fragment of canvas attached to the stretcher) may refer to Cox & Co., the shipping agents, bankers and travel agents founded in 1758 and known throughout the British Empire (and still trading as Cox & Kings travel agents).
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A rare Safavid oil painting of an African soldier Persia, Isfahan, circa 1680-90
A rare Safavid oil painting of an African soldier Persia, Isfahan, circa 1680-90
A rare Safavid oil painting of an African soldier Persia, Isfahan, circa 1680-90
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