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Thu: 1 PM–8 PM
Fri–Mon: 10 AM–5 PM
Tue–Wed: Closed
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San Francisco, CA 94102

Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts

Feb 26, 2016 – May 8, 2016

Journey to three cosmopolitan Islamic empires and explore the personal relationships that fueled artistic creation.

Pearls on a String takes viewers to the Islamic world in the 16th through 18th centuries to consider the question “Who’s behind the art?” The answer comes in the form of three stories, each centered on a protagonist from a different century and empire: the writer in 16th-century Mughal India, the painter in 17th-century Safavid Iran and the patron in 18th-century Ottoman Turkey.

These narratives reveal the significance of both individualism and collaboration in creating extraordinary works of art. They also demonstrate how artists can breathe new life into old ideas to produce work that is innovative but steeped in tradition. As a backdrop for the three stories, Pearls on a String vividly evokes an early modern world rapidly changing with the global movement of people, ideas and technologies.

Through 64 impressive artworks — including manuscripts, paintings, jeweled objects, sculpture, textiles and metalwork — you’ll discover traces of the writer, painter and patron. And you’ll gain a new perspective on how personal relationships can awaken and sustain an artist’s creativity, a process that endures in the present day.

The Writer

The writer and historian Abu’l Fazl ibn Mubarak (1551–1602) witnessed both intimate and momentous events at the court of Emperor Akbar (ruled 1556–1605) in Mughal India (present-day Pakistan and India).

Through his writings, Abu’l Fazl, the imperial chief secretary, presented an enduring image of Akbar’s court as a multicultural community engaged with different religious, artistic and intellectual traditions.

Abu’l Fazl was among the most distinguished scholars of his day. He came from a family of learned men, and under his father’s guidance he studied religious sciences, Greek philosophy and mysticism by the time he was 15 years old. Abu’l Fazl was 23 when he came to Akbar’s court through an introduction by his brother, the poet Fayzi, who was employed there. Abu’l Fazl’s intellectual vigor, humanitarian values and liberal religious sentiments resonated with Akbar. The scholar remained in the emperor’s service — as advisor, chief secretary, ambassador, court historian, translator and trusted friend — until his death at the age of 51. Abu’l Fazl’s intellectual vigor and liberal religious sentiments resonated with Akbar. Yet his influence over the emperor and imperial policies threatened many, including the future emperor Jahangir.

Abu’l Fazl’s major achievement was writing a three-volume history of Akbar’s reign, the Akbarnama (History of Akbar), which includes an immense amount of information about the emperor’s achievements, events past and present, people who came and went, and much more. The Akbarnama remains a key resource even today, achieving a court historian’s goal of remaining alive for posterity.

The Artist

The painter Muhammad Zaman ibn Haji Yusuf (active 1670–1700) dramatically changed the course of 17th-century Persian painting at the Safavid court of Shah Sulayman (r. 1666–94) in Isfahan, Iran.

He is celebrated as the innovator of farangi-sazi, a painting style that blended Persian artistic traditions with European techniques such as linear and atmospheric perspective and contrasting light and shadow. With these new pictorial tools, Muhammad Zaman retold the greatest stories of Persian poetry in unprecedented ways that were exciting and meaningful to his contemporaries.

The style of painting Muhammad Zaman developed reflects the society in which it was conceived. Isfahan’s diverse population was composed largely of Persian and central Asian Muslims, Georgians, Armenians, Circassians, Jews and Zoroastrians. During the 17th century, the capital’s European population grew exponentially as Western artists, adventurers and merchants flowed in, adding to an atmosphere ripe for innovation.

Two of Muhammad Zaman’s most important commissions are displayed in the exhibition. One, a painting of a biblical subject dedicated to Shah Sulayman, demonstrates the artist’s engagement with religious narratives of Isfahan’s Muslims and Christians. The second is a series of illustrations added to two famed copies of Persian poetry safeguarded in the royal library. In this enviable commission, Muhammad Zaman demonstrated his sophisticated understanding of canonical Persian literature and showcased his command over the latest painterly techniques from Europe.

Following court etiquette, Muhammad Zaman referred to himself as a “slave” of the royal household in his signatures. In doing so, he emphasized that he was part of the service elite, a collective bound to the shah that viewed service as a virtue. Along with nobles and courtiers, court painters like Muhammad Zaman were handsomely rewarded with money, titles and ceremonial robes of honor.

The Patron

Sultan Mahmud I (ruled 1730–1754) was celebrated in his day as a sponsor of the arts and as a ruler who brought peace to the Ottoman Empire.

Mahmud collaborated with artisans and merchants to define a cosmopolitan court in the empire’s capital of Istanbul, in present-day Turkey, poised at the crossroads of Asia and Europe.

A stout, hunchbacked man who spent his early life under house arrest, Mahmud had challenges to overcome upon gaining the throne. As a boy, Mahmud witnessed his father’s humiliating removal from office by his uncle Ahmed III (ruled 1703–1730). In 1730, a revolt broke out, and Mahmud was made ruler of a vast and unstable empire. Those who elevated him to the throne thought they could control him; Mahmud proved them wrong. He calmed public unrest and initiated military reforms.

Mahmud used art and architectural patronage to stress his impressive royal lineage and to communicate his vision of a technologically advanced empire engaged with Europe. Those who knew Mahmud observed his personal involvement in artistic commissions and his taste for cleverly engineered objects made with rare materials. One such commission was a remarkable jeweled gun, on view in Pearls. This curious assemblage of jeweled objects includes a dagger, pen case with writing instruments and other accessories. In addition to referencing the noble pursuits of hunting and calligraphy, the gun also calls attention to Mahmud’s fascination with the precious and the innovative.

This impressive gun served as a ceremonial object, held by one of Sultan Mahmud I’s attendants during state ceremonies. While the flamboyant decoration of the gun lent itself to public spectacle, the experience of extracting its treasures from the gun’s stock is a more personal act.

Main image: Portrait of Mahmud I, from A Series of Portraits of the Emperors of Turkey (detail), 1815, engraved by John Young (English, 1755–1825). Mezzotint. National Gallery of Art Library, Washington, D.C., gift of Mr. Ferdinand Lammot Belin, N7614.T9 Y6. Photograph courtesy National Gallery of Art Library, Washington, D.C.

Organizers & Sponsors

Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons, and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts is organized by the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, in partnership with the Asian Art Museum.

This exhibition has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor; a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services; an award from the National Endowment for the Arts; and by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Art and the Humanities. Presentation at the Asian Art Museum is made possible with the generous support of The Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang Fund for Excellence in Exhibitions and Presentations, Anne and Timothy Kahn, and Judy Wilbur.