The Mystery of the Narcissus

On the 10th June 2020, Sotheby’s will be presenting a painting of a narcissus flower signed by the 18th century Persian painting Muhammad Masih. The painting is not dated but the signature seems genuine, written in gold on each side of the base.

Golden signature of Muhammad Masid, just below a standard form of dedication.

To say that the painting rings a bell is an understatement. Indeed, two other identical versions are currently known. One is mounted in the Hindo-Irani album, also called Nasir al-Din Shah album, currently scattered between the Golestan Palace in Tehran, the Chester Beatty Library for the most part, and other collections1. The page bears what I call an “attributive signature” to the famous Indian painter Mansur, who worked in Mughal India for emperors Akbar (1556-1605) and Jahangir (1605-1627).

The second page is mounted in the St-Petersburg album, previously called Leningrad album, kept for the most part in Russia, with only a few other folios scattered in various public and private collections (including a never seen before page sold last Winter in Paris). The painting is dated 1105 H./ 1693-94 and signed by the Persian painter Muhammad Zaman.

The Painters

Nadir al-‘asr Mansur worked in India, first in Akbar Ketabkhana (library), signing paintings in the 1590’s, and at least until 1621 when he was in Kashmir with the emperor Jahangir who wrote:

The flowers seen in the summer pastures of Kashmir are beyond enumeration. Thos drawn by Master Nadir ul-‘asr Mansur the painter number more than a hundred2.

Mansur is particularly reknown for his depictions of animals and flowers, but only two flower paintings indisputably bear his signature, a Tulip today in Aligarh University Museum and a copy of an European engraving in the Golestan palace in Tehran. This particular painting of a narcissus is problematic. Though the wording is similar to others genuine signatures, it is not located on the painting but on the below border, which was added later, when the page was mounted in the album. This is a common feature with Mughal album painting but one that is often ignored by specialists.

The style of the painting differs slightly from Aligarh Tulip and the Golestan “Seven Flowers”, but we can put the variations on the natural evolution of the painter style, as well on the fact that this painting is most probably the copy of an European engraving (more on this below)3.

Muhammad Zaman worked in Safavid Iran between 1086 H./1675 or earlier and 1106 H./ 1695. The life of Muhammad Zaman has caused a lot of controversy among specialists, some stating he travelled to India, others to Europe where he converted to Christianism (which has been proven untrue).
He is particularly known for his copies of European engravings, and according to his dated works, he seems to have favored flower paintings in the late stages of his career. This particular narcissus, signed and dated, was probably offered to the king Shah Soliman 1st (1666-1694). The style is genuine and corresponds to other flower paintings signed by the artist, mounted in the St-Petersburg album or elsewhere.

Muhammad Masih career is even less clear than the other two artists, about whom a lot still remain unknown. Some state that Muhammad Masih was an Indian painter emigrated in Iran during the 18th century, but this has never been proven4 His work is not particularly well studied, but he seemed to have worked at the end of the 17th century and during the 18th century, as demonstrated by several paintings and drawings scattered in various collection, including a small flower dated 1123 H./ 1711-12, mounted in an album kept in the Muze-ye Honarhā-ye Moʻāser in Ispahan.

Flower signed Muhammad Masih, 1123 H./ 1712

Origin of the Design

Muhammad Masih painting was initially sold at Sotheby’s Paris in 2015. I was busy writting my doctoral dissertation at the time and I completely missed it. Having three pages with an exact same design is however unprecedented.

At the time, I was not able to identify the exact model of the two paintings I knew, and despite a follow-up research, I still come empty-handed. However, there is no doubt that the orginal design was made in Europe, most likely during the 16th century, for a printed herbarium, or most likely a florilegium, or “book of flowers”, particularly en vogue during the 17th century.

Contrary to religious and mythological engravings that are pretty well documented, it is unclear how did herbaria and florilegia arrive in India and in Iran, but we know that some European travellers and artists had some books of flowers in their belongings. For this reason, we find many copies of Jan Theodor van de Bry, Florilegium renovatum et auctum, published in Frankfurt in 1641, Pierre Vallet Le Jardin du Roy published in Paris in 1606, Francois L’Anglois Livre de fleurs, Paris, 1620, Adrian Collaert Florilegium, published in 1587, and several others.

On the left, Indian painting, 18th c., Clive album (VAM IS.48:1/A-1956). On the right, the original by Pierre Vallet, Le jardin du Roy, Paris, 1606. Species depicted: Lilium Martagon

Making a copy in the 17th century

Regardless how flower books arrived in the hands of painters, tthis exact model, and many others, were used to create either exact copies, such as our three identical pages, or brand new compositions using several sources.

To make a copy is quite easy. First the artist used a niddle to make small perforations along the contours of the original design. Then, the model was put face against a blank sheet of paper. The painter then put a bit of charcoal powder on the back of the original page, which went through the holes onto the blank page. The “master copy” could be used several times, as demonstrated by the existence of the three similar narcissus.

Pounced drawing of a bird. Iran, 17th c. (British Museum, 1988-4-23.26, f. 15b)

Was Mansur the first one to paint this narcissus? This would explain why Muhammad Zaman chose the subject, as the Indian painter was most probably reknown outside of the Mughal court. Was Muhammad Zaman even aware of the first painting? Probably, though it is unsure how (the first painting probably arrived in Iran later, after Delhi sack by the army of Nader Shah Afshar in 1747).
The depiction of narcissus is not uncommon in Iran in the 17th century, as the flower takes on several different meaning in poetry and litterature, but the facination with this particular design is more complex than it looks, and a lot more remains to discover.

  1. For the full list of folios, see E. Wright, Muraqqa, 2008, p. 141. The exact number of pages depend on the author. Wright counts 126, Atabai counts 131. B. Atabai, Fihrist-i Muraqqa’at, 1974, p. 178.
  2. Translation from The Jahangirnama: Memoirs of Jahangir, Emperor of India, ed. W.M. Thackston, 1999, p. 333.
  3. Asok Kumar Das openly challenges this attribution in Wonders of Nature: Ustad Mansur at the Mughal Court, 2012, p. 148-149. I remain slightly more nuanced than the author.
  4. This is the initial assertion of Mohammad ‘Ali Karimzade Tabrizi in Ahval va asar-e Naqqashan-e Qadim-e Iran, 1985, vol. 3, pp. 183-4, recounted by Melikian Chirvani in Le Chant du Monde, 2007, p. 408.

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