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Early civilizations
6th - 11th century
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Works on paper
     Persian miniatures

Renaissance in Europe
The High Renaissance
16th century in Europe
17th century in Europe
18th century in Europe
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Drawings: 14th - 17th century

Drawing is as old as art. Indeed the earliest paintings, in palaeolithic caves, are so linear in concept that they can equally well be described as drawings.

The art of China, achieved with a brush on silk or paper, is as close to drawing as to painting. And medieval illuminated manuscripts are often linear in their illustrations. One famous example, the 9th-century Utrecht Psalter, has pen-and-ink drawings of such energetic freedom of line that the closest analogy seems a modern cartoon. But these, in their context, serve the same purpose as paintings. Not until the late 14th century does a drawing come to seem something different, something of its own kind.


Paper is the distinguishing factor. Unlike the parchment of an illuminated manuscript, a sheet of paper is cheap enough to be used for a sketch. Unlike the slow and important task of painting a wall or a panel, drawing on paper is a process suitable for experiment.

With the availability of Paper, drawing becomes another aspect of an artist's skill - and one in which the relationship between hand and eye is unusually direct. A rapid sketch reveals a great artist's genius in an exceptionally fresh manner, which is why drawings are so much prized.


The story of drawing need not be told separately here, for it mirrors closely the story of painting; most of the great artists have excelled in both forms. However the unfamiliar appearance of some early drawings on paper needs explanation. Pen and ink are used throughout the history of drawing, as are chalk, charcoal and a watercolour wash. These are all familiar today. So is the graphite pencil, which goes back only to the 17th century.

The unusual appearance of many drawings before the 17th century is due to two related factors - the use of a metal point instead of a lead pencil, and the need for a prepared surface on which the metal will make a mark.


Paper is prepared by coating it with several layers of powdered minerals (particuarly lead, but also sometimes bone, eggshell or sea shells) dissolved in linseed oil. This surface can be tinted to any colour, the favourites being grey, blue, brown or orange-pink. Lines drawn with a metal point show up as dark grey. The artists often provide contrast by painting on highlights in white.

A more convenient way of adding extra colour and tone to a drawing is by means of watercolour, in a tradition which begins with Dürer's sketches of landscape and natural history in the late 15th and early 16th century.


Persian miniatures: 14th - 16th century

One of the great traditions of miniature painting on paper is that of Persia, which later spreads to Muslim India. These intricate images, designed to illustrate manuscripts, usually depict scenes of history or romance - with small figures engaging in battle or courtship in pleasantly stylized landscapes.

The earliest paintings of this kind date from Persia in the 14th century. The Mongols at this time dominate an entire swathe of Asia from China to the Black Sea. It is probably the influence of Chinese landscape painting (and possibly even the arrival of Chinese artists) which stimulates Persian art to evolve in this new direction.


The city of Tabriz, well placed on the international trade routes, is the first centre of this school of painting. Scenes from Persian legend and history are depicted in a vigorously chaotic style, crowded with movement and colour. The Shah-nama is the favourite source.

Towards the end of the 14th century, in 1392, Tabriz is taken by a conqueror as ferocious and alarming as the Mongols - Timur, or Tamerlane. But Timur is not hostile to art (one of his passions is beautifying his capital city of Samarkand), and his descendants - known as the Timurids - prove to be enthusiastic patrons of calligraphy and miniature painting.


During the 15th century Herat, rather than Tabriz, becomes the centre of Persian painting under Timur's son, Shahrukh. A son of Shahrukh, Baisunqur Mirza, establishes a library and an academy where forty calligraphers and many painters are employed to produce illustrated manuscripts.

The Herat style gradually becomes dull and conventional. But late in the 15th century the academy is shaken into new life by its principal, Kamal-ud-din Bihzad - now considered the greatest artist in the Persian tradition.


Bihzad introduces a new animation in the figures of a scene, making them more realistic and at the same time setting them in a more unified composition of line, space and colour. His example, and the work of his followers, establishes the style of art of the powerful new Persian empire of the 16th century - that of the Safavid dynasty.

Meanwhile pupils of Bihzad carry the tradition into fertile new territories. Two of them are employed in the mid-16th century to teach painting to artists in northern India, a region conquered by descendants of Timur. Here there emerge artists who soon rival the older Persian tradition. These talented upstarts are in the studios of the Moghul emperors.


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