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Nancy Micklewright
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam


With very few exceptions, there is no tradition of figural imagery in a religious context in Islam. Religious structures have been lavishly decorated with nonfigural imagery in a variety of media, and religious texts are ornamented with illuminated frontispieces and chapter and verse headings. An exception to the general tendency against figural imagery in a religious context occurs with the illustration of manuscripts that contain religious subjects, such as particular events in the life of the Prophet, particularly the miʿrāj or miraculous journey. Lives of the saints, augury texts, and mystic poetry may also contain figural imagery. While the existence of religious painting has long been recognized by scholars of Islamic art, it has only recently begun to be studied in some detail.

Much more attention has been directed to the painting that is so much more prevalent in the art of the Islamic world: the illustration of manuscripts of histories, folktales, romances, epics, poetry, and animal fables, and the production of single-page paintings that were collected and assembled into albums by individual patrons. This painting, almost without exception done in a miniature format on paper, was generally produced in a royal atelier or for elite patrons. Throughout Islamic history, artists associated with the courts were exposed to the foreign artists (Byzantine, European, or Chinese) who visited the courts as well as to the foreign works of art that found their way into royal collections. European prints and paintings in particular began to have an impact on miniature painting at the courts of the Ṣafavids, Qājārs, Ottomans, and Mughals. Artists at first confined themselves to experimentation with technical aspects of perspective and shading. However, as the artists of the Islamic world became more familiar with European painting, and as political and cultural contact between the two spheres increased more generally, nineteenth-century artists adopted other conventions of European painting that had a far-reaching effect on painting in the Islamic world.

Although it is generally true that painting in the Islamic world changed dramatically during the nineteenth century, it is impossible to discuss these changes in a meaningful way on a pan-Islamic level. Regional variations in painting style are extreme and are closely related to the political, economic, and cultural history of each individual region. The histories of Iran, Egypt, and Turkey, for example, and particularly of their contact with the European powers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, vary so tremendously that it is misleading and uninformative to treat them as a single political or cultural entity. The same is true of the history of the art of each of these regions. Thus the art of each major cultural region must be considered separately to gain an understanding of painting in the modern Islamic world.

The art of the nineteenth-century Islamic world has only recently begun to be studied, and most work so far has concentrated on architecture, not painting. Developments in contemporary art may be reported in local publications throughout the Islamic world, but these publications, often produced by private galleries or banks, are difficult to obtain outside the region. Until quite recently there have been very few works in European languages about contemporary art in the Islamic world. An exception is modern Turkish art, which has been the subject of numerous publications, many in English, and which is thus the most accessible to the non-specialist. Also, as a result of the long cultural relationship between France and North Africa, there are a number of French publications about contemporary art in North Africa. Finally, the journal Arts and the Islamic World, which first appeared in 1982, has made a concerted and successful effort to publicize contemporary art from all regions of the Islamic world. Articles about modern art in the Islamic world appear less regularly in other publications, such as Aramco World, Asian Art News, and Arts of Asia. The material presented in this article is necessarily limited by available source material as well as by space constraints. More attention is given to Turkish art, since that information is readily available, but the art of other regions and related issues in the study of modern Islamic painting are touched on briefly.

Ottoman painting in the classical tradition ends with the end of the eighteenth century; modern Turkish painting begins in the mid-nineteenth century, after a period of nearly fifty years from which very few examples of miniature painting have survived. The transitions between the two painting traditions are rarely discussed, yet a careful examination of eighteenth-century miniatures reveals the beginnings of experimentation with European painting conventions.

Abdülcelil Çelebi, or Levni, the best-studied of the eighteenth-century painters, is known particularly for the Surname-i vehbi (Festival Book of Vehbi) commemorating the circumcision of the sons of Ahmed III in 1711, and for a large number of single-figure studies. Situated comfortably within the Ottoman tradition, his painting is characterized by its complex compositions, clarity of representation, richness of detail, and technical competence. In his articulation of architectural and landscape elements and shading, we see rudimentary attempts to indicate depth and three-dimensionality.

A second, slightly younger contemporary of Levni's is Rafael, sometimes called Rafael the Armenian. Unlike Levni's figures, Rafael's convey a sense of mass and three-dimensionality, an impression strengthened when we notice that they cast shadows. Formed by color, light, and shadow, not by line, they are compelling figures who establish direct eye contact with the viewer.

Rafael's work is unique in that his attention is focused solely on the figures he depicts, revealing the artist's interest in Western painting conventions; however, it is more often in landscape that we can detect the most obvious impact of European painting conventions of perspective and three-dimensionality. Ottoman artists had always taken a strong interest in the depiction of landscape, and its importance in Ottoman painting continues unabated throughout the eighteenth century, but its treatment began to change. In addition to the obvious differences in technique, the artists’ intent is altered: the sixteenth-century artist was interested in conveying precise topographical information, but the eighteenth-century painter is much closer to the European romantic tradition of landscape painting.

After Ahmed III was deposed in 1730, the royal atelier barely survived. There is very little information available about artistic activity at the court in the first decades of the nineteenth century, and few manuscripts or albums survive from this period. Murals and other painted architectural decoration were the most viable of the visual arts in the late eighteenth century and the first decades of the nineteenth, and indeed this art form continued to be popular throughout the century.

The first works of modern Turkish painting emerge in the 1840s and 1850s. The modern artists are set apart from their predecessors on several grounds. Abandoning the miniature format, the nineteenth-century artists worked in oil or watercolor, at an easel. Their subject matter resembled that of their European contemporaries—landscapes, still lifes, and genre scenes. No longer the products of a court atelier system, these artists were graduates of the new engineering and military academies set up by the government. Their training in sketching, draftsmanship, and engineering distinguishes them from the court painters of a century earlier. In addition, the majority of the artists were sent to Europe to complete their education and often were able to study in the studios of the famous European artists of the day. Upon their return to the Ottoman empire, nearly all of them worked as engineers, military officials, or government bureaucrats first, and artists second.

We know of at least forty artists who were active during the later nineteenth century, working in a variety of styles. Osman Hamdi Bey (1842–1910) is one of the best-known and most interesting Turkish painters of the nineteenth century. He spent twelve years in Europe, perhaps studying at some point in the studio of the Orientalist painter Jean-Léon Gerôme. In 1881 Hamdi Bey was appointed director of the Archaeological Museum and was responsible for the passage of the first antiquities law in the Middle East. He was also the first director of the newly founded School of Fine Arts, a post he held from 1883 until 1908. A very prolific, accomplished painter, his work in many cases resembles that of the Orientalist painters, with whom he was certainly familiar from his time in Europe. He often painted women in the harem and street or genre scenes, as well as single figures and landscape. The paintings of the nineteenth-century Orientalist artists are often interpreted generally as a reflection of the stereotyped view of Middle Eastern society held by Europeans. To some extent this is a useful way of analyzing these works; however, Hamdi Bey and the other Turks painting in the European tradition do not fit neatly into this scheme, and in fact suggest the need for a more critical application of theories of Orientalism.

Twentieth-century visual artists have worked in a variety of styles and media, generally related to some extent to major art movements in Europe. Contemporary art in Turkey is supported by two major museums for painting and sculpture, one in Istanbul and one in Ankara, as well as by numerous private galleries and collectors. There are a number of highly regarded art schools that train younger artists in addition to providing a source of income for practicing painters and sculptors. Turkey's proximity to Europe and its long history of cultural interaction with the European art world have allowed Turkish artists to exhibit their work and communicate with a wide international audience.

The political and cultural history of Iran differs from that of Turkey in a number of important aspects, and those differences are apparent in the way in which modern Iranian painting evolved from Ṣafavid miniature painting. During the Ṣafavid period (1501–1732) Persian artists were exposed to quantities of European prints as well as to the artists who traveled to the Ṣafavid court from Europe. Royal palaces were decorated with large-scale mural paintings that illustrated primarily historical subjects and figures relaxing in landscape settings. Under the Qājārs (1779–1924) a distinctive style of painting emerged, similar in conception to the Ṣafavid murals but completely different in appearance. Intended as wall decoration, the paintings are large in scale, done in oil, and most often depict a royal prince or woman of the court. Scrupulous attention is paid to the representation of costume and jewelry, and the women are often shown as dancers, musicians, or servants. Although details of setting are minimal, the manner in which palace interiors or landscapes are depicted indicates that the Qājār artists were attempting to use a Western perspective system. The same style of painting was also used during the Qājār period to decorate lacquer bookbindings and pen boxes.

Although the art of the Qājārs has been studied to some extent, the painting of twentieth-century Iran is virtually unknown in the West. Persian publications on modern painting rarely reach North American libraries, and there have been few if any studies of the subject in European languages. Furthermore, it is unclear how the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the subsequent dramatic change in the cultural climate of the country have affected the art world.

Within the Arabic-speaking world, the development of modern styles of painting has taken a variety of paths. In Saudi Arabia, for example, where there was no earlier painting tradition, modern art has emerged only in the past few decades. In other areas, particularly North Africa and Lebanon, where there has been significant contact with French culture and artists, Arab artists have worked to develop the cultural institutions necessary to support a modern art community. Exhibitions, public and private collectors, and publications—often on an international scale—testify to the importance of painting within contemporary Arab culture.

Throughout the history of Islamic art Egypt has had a pivotal role, and this is true of its place in the contemporary art scene. The first modern school of fine arts was established in Cairo in 1908, surviving today as the College of Fine Arts. The National Centre for Fine Arts oversees the operation of a number of centers of art education as well as museums of modern art and organizes a series of exhibitions each year. Egyptian painters work in diverse styles, and many enjoy international reputations, exhibiting their work in Europe and elsewhere.

South Asia has a long and rich tradition of painting in a variety of media in Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic traditions. As a result of the long period of British colonial rule, Indian artists became very familiar with European painting styles. Elements from European painting traditions were added to the already eclectic mix of styles and subject matters that had long characterized the painting of the Subcontinent. Since independence and partition, numerous traditional regional painting forms, such as story-telling murals, have flourished. However, there is also a strong contemporary art movement, supported by art colleges and galleries in the major cities of the Subcontinent.

As painting in the Islamic world has moved from a private art form intended for the enjoyment of a small group of manuscript owners to a public art exhibited in galleries and museums, and as the practice of art has become more accessible, artists have begun to explore themes that were not part of the miniature tradition. For example, painting specifically concerned with Islamic religious values has an important place in contemporary art in most countries with a significant Muslim population. Many of the creators of these works observe the traditional prohibition against figural imagery alluded to in the ḥadīth and focus instead on painted calligraphic forms.A. D. Pirous, a contemporary Indonesian painter, is an excellent example of an artist whose work often reflects his Islamic identity and is a prominent figure in the contemporary Indonesian art world. He has traveled and studied art outside Indonesia and has exhibited both his prints and paintings widely. His experiments with calligraphic painting in the early 1970s and his more general interest in incorporating Islamic themes or motifs in his work have been an important influence on younger Indonesian artists.

Traditionally women had almost no role in the production of miniature painting in the Islamic world. Although the majority of the painters whose work has survived are anonymous, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that any of these artists were women. With the introduction of fine-arts schools and the increasing accessibility of education to women beginning in the nineteenth century, women have become important members of the art community throughout the Islamic world. They have, however, faced the same barriers to success and recognition as their sister artists in the West throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: restricted access to major centers of art training (particularly in the nineteenth century), much more limited exposure in gallery and museum collections, and a dramatically lower rate of inclusion in publications. For example, one recent work on contemporary Turkish painters included 148 artists, of whom only 13 were women (Başkan). A rough survey of the available literature indicates that the Turkish example is representative: women generally comprise about 10 percent of the artists discussed in an article or catalog. Exceptions occur rarely, as in an article entitled “The Emergence of Women on the Malaysian Art Scene” (Arts and the Islamic World, 1988), which is concerned solely with women artists and mentions a women-only exhibition and the role of women in the Malaysian art world as practicing artists, curators, and so on. Women are active artists and art professionals throughout the Islamic world, but at present they are nearly invisible owing to their absence from the published record. The difficulties that women face in gaining recognition in the art world are of course exacerbated by the feeling in some parts of the Muslim community that the public role of women should be limited.

Throughout the history of art in the Islamic world, painting has also taken place in contexts outside the courtly tradition. Unfortunately, these more popular art forms are nearly impossible to document, at least until around the beginning of the nineteenth century. However, the paintings that decorate ceramics, trucks, boats, houses, fountains, books, and innumerable other objects display the aesthetic values and cultural identity of large segments of the population, often demonstrating a juxtaposition of artistic and religious concerns that were not apparent in the art of the elite.



  • Arnold, Thomas W.Painting in Islam: A Study of the Place of Pictorial Art in Muslim Culture. Piscataway, N.J.: Gorgias Press, 2002.
  • Arts and the Islamic World. London, 1982–. The most important publication on modern art in the Islamic world, appearing in two or three issues annually. Nearly every issue contains at least one article about contemporary art somewhere in the Islamic world, and a few issues have been devoted almost entirely to the art of a particular area.
  • Başkan, Seyfi. Contemporary Turkish Painters. Ankara, 1991. Bilingual publication (Turkish/English) organized as a series of short biographies of nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists in Turkey.
  • Blair, Sheila, and Jonathan Bloom. The Art and Architecture of Islam, 1250–1800. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996.
  • Bosworth, C. E., and Carole Hillenbrand, eds.Qajar Iran: Political, Social, and Cultural Change, 1800–1925. Edinburgh, 1983. Collection of essays on a variety of topics, all concerned with the Qājār period. The diversity of discipline and subject matter provides an excellent overview of the period.
  • Brosh, Na’ama, and Rachel Milstein. Biblical Stories in Islamic Painting. Jerusalem, 1991. Catalog published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name held at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
  • Buchari, Machmud, and Sanento Yuliman. A. D. Pirous: Painting, Etching, and Serigraphy. Bandung, 1985. Bilingual (Indonesian/English) exhibition catalog, copiously illustrated, with essays on various aspects of the artist's work.
  • Canby, Sheila R.The Golden Age of Persian Art, 1501–1722. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001.
  • Canby, Sheila R., ed.Humayun's Garden Party: Princess of the House of Timur and Early Mughal Painting. Mumbai: Marg Publications, 1995.
  • Falk, S. J.Qājār Paintings: Persian Oil Paintings of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. London, 1972. The main publication on Qājār paintings, focused on a private collection in the possession of the empress of Iran at the time of publication.
  • Glassie, Henry. Turkish Traditional Art Today. Bloomington, Ind., 1992. Comprehensive survey of the subject, copiously illustrated, with many interviews by contemporary artists throughout Turkey.
  • Grabar, Oleg. Mostly Miniatures: An Introduction to Persian Painting. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001.
  • Grant, Jean. “Saudi Art: A Fledgling about to Take Off.”Arts and the Islamic World4, no. 1 (1986): 28–32. Brief overview of the development of modern Saudi art, with a discussion of several contemporary artists.
  • Hillenbrand, Robert. Persian Painting: From the Mongols to the Qājārs. London: I. B. Tauris, 2001.
  • Parker, Ann. Hajj Paintings. 2d rev. ed.London: I. B. Tauris, 1999.
  • Renda, Günsel, et al.A History of Turkish Painting. 2d ed.Seattle, Wash., 1988. Comprehensive survey of Turkish painting, beginning with an overview of Ottoman miniature painting and continuing through the contemporary period.
  • Sims, Eleanor. Peerless Images: Persian Painting and Its Sources. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002.
  • Wright, Astri. Soul, Spirit, and Mountain: Preoccupations of Contemporary Indonesian Painters. Kuala Lumpur, 1994. First scholarly analysis of contemporary Indonesian art in English, containing a discussion of the work of numerous artists in its sociocultural context, based on interviews with the artists.
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