As part of the pioneering Persian and Islamic arts lecture series at the Courtauld, eminent Persianist scholar Dr Eleanor Sims examined the case of ‘people from parts unknown’. The works in question were two suites of almost life-size oil paintings from the second half of the seventeenth century, which, being unsigned and un-dated, have both ambiguous origin and purpose. Their style is eclectic, and the subject hybrid, fusing the technique and pictorial conventions of contemporary European ‘prospect portraits’ with anonymous subjects dressed in luxurious Persian, Georgian and Armenian fashions. The suites are further paired off into couples of men and women who turn to each other from the left and the right.
The works are the subject of Sims’s current research, but both scholar and subject have been well acquainted throughout her career. Having originally catalogued the paintings for an exhibition in London in 1975, Sims’s talk presented new ways to think about the emergence this material, which has often been a subject of scholarly disagreement. Questions of who painted these figures is an issue which is perhaps no longer as relevant now as it may have been in the more connoisseurial atmosphere when the images surfaced in the 1970’s. Instead, Sims focuses on the possible intention of the paintings though an expert analysis of the costume of the figures, the curious nature of the objects that adorn the interior settings, any stylistic similarities to European equivalents and the cultural context in which they were produced.
Isfahan, Persia’s seventeenth century capital, was an international showplace populated by a cosmopolitan community including farangi envoys and missionaries from Europe as well as a prominent Armenian community established in the New Julfa quarter of the city. Sims’s analysis of these works interprets them as having been made in Persia, possibly by a European artist working there or within a dedicated atelier producing this type of image. They function then as the grandest of postcards representing the diverse ethnic groups that one would encounter in early modern Isfahan: a souvenir for the European traveller to take home from his Eastern grand tour. Similar large scale figural paintings were not unusual at this time, but could be found around the city in niches of buildings (such as Armenian houses or on the exterior walls of the Chehel Sotun Palace, which also turned a hand to the depiction of the exotic foreigner but from a Persian point of view). The intention of a European clientele is derived from the rectangular shape of the canvas, which hints at an element of portability. These suites lack the architectural jigsawing of their Persian equivalents that have intentionally arched tops in order to fit snugly to a façade.
The parallels drawn with Mannerist inspired image series including those by Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbarán (Jacob and His Twelve Sons, c.1640-44) placed the Isfahani oils in a context of contemporary practice. Sims’s identification of quotations from European sources, including those from portraits of Charles I and his wife Henrietta Maria that were owned by Shah Safi (r. 1629 – 1642) amongst others, further demystified stylistic elements within the Safavid canvases and made direct connections with their possible sources. The two suites of ‘people from parts unknown’ still pose more puzzles for the viewer, particularly the enigmatic blonde male which remains without a matching female equivalent but who possesses a strikingly individualized face. Their abusiveness is however an enduring factor in their fascination, and some of the pairs recently provided the grand finale to the exhibition Sehnsucht Persien in Zurich earlier this year. They have too evidently provided a fertile riddle for Sims to decipher, but one that she eloquently unravels to great effect.