Art/ Collection/ Art Object
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Silk Animal Carpet

Object Name:
Carpet
Date:
second half 16th century
Geography:
Made in Iran, probably Kashan
Culture:
Islamic
Medium:
Silk (warp, weft, and pile); asymmetrically knotted pile
Dimensions:
Rug: L. 94 7/8 in. (241 cm) W. 70 1/16 in. (178 cm) Mount: L. 103 1/4 in. (262.3 cm) W. 78 in. (198.1 cm) D. 3 in. (7.6 cm) Wt. 206 lbs. (93.4 kg)
Classification:
Textiles-Rugs
Credit Line:
Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913
Accession Number:
14.40.721
Not on view
This silk rug demonstrates the part played by the miniaturist in designing rug cartoons. Neither the symmetry usually associated with carpet designs nor the repeat patterns of textiles is evident here. Animals, including fantastic beasts of Chinese origin, arranged singly or in groups, are pictorially laid out in a landscape of flowering plants. As in most Persian carpets, the animals are engaged in combat—possibly evoking the underlying symbolism of a cosmological order dating back to pre-Islamic times as well as referring to the hunt, a symbol of royal power.
This celebrated rug was donated to the Metropolitan Museum in 1913 by Benjamin Altman, along with two others of the same class but with different patterns (see MMA 14.40.715 for one of the others). A fourth carpet was added to the Museum’s holdings in 1958. Together these pieces form the largest cluster of so-called Kashan silk rugs in any collection. Overall, the class of silk rugs associated with sixteenth-century Kashan consists of twenty examples. Four of them are large, the two most famous being the great hunting carpets in the Museum für Angewandte Kunst, Vienna, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which combine centralized medallion designs with figural representations of humans and animals engaged in a hunt. The other sixteen are much smaller. Two main pattern types appear in the small rugs: one is figural, with rows of animals, while the other features central medallions of various shapes—quatrefoil, quatrefoil framed by a band, octafoil, and ogival, occasionally with figural elements used in a secondary way. Remarkably, the Metropolitan’s cluster includes one animal rug and three different medallion types.

The Altman animal carpet has a field pattern consisting of rows of natural and mythical or supernatural animals and animal combats set amid an array of plants and landscape elements. The arrangement is pictorial, meaning that it is intended to be viewed from one side or end. The main border features two palmettes alternating with birds, probably golden pheasants, arranged to provide the same reciprocal rhythm as the more common vinescroll patterns. Three other small animal carpets survive, all of which use part of this same pattern for the field, sometimes repeating entire rows of figures. In fact, there is an interchangeability of pattern elements and specific designs in all of the small Kashan rugs: similar border or medallion forms appear several times, suggesting the use of a pattern book of designs.

The hunting carpets possess the sumptuous materials (silk brocaded with metal thread), fine weave, and superb drawing and balance that one would expect in court furnishings. Furthermore, the theme of the hunt itself is associated with kings, and specific pattern elements have been linked to particular artists working in the royal book atelier. These hunting carpets can be dated to 1530 or 1540, when artistic production at and for the court of Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524–76) was at its peak. The small rugs have enough features in common with the hunting carpets—materials, structure, medallion forms, secondary border patterns, and individual motifs—that they probably come from the same looms although somewhat later, over the course of the second half of the sixteenth century. Although the small rugs have long been said to lack the brocading of metal thread abundant in the hunting carpets, at least one of them includes metal thread (see MMA 14.40.715). The animal rugs probably date from closer to mid-century, while the rugs with a central medallion framed by a band are more likely to come near the century’s end, as the same pattern appears in a Polonaise rug dating from the end of the sixteenth or beginning of the seventeenth century.

At the same time, there are significant differences between the two subgroups—in size, in the complexity of the patterns, even in the colors. The hunting carpets have a softer palette based on salmon pink and green, with similar value and little contrast (an effect heightened by fading), while the small rugs have a brighter palette and greater contrast. But the coloring of the small rugs is consistent with the palette used in sixteenth-century Persian carpets in general, while the more pastel hues of the hunting carpets seem exceptional (it should be noted that the salmon pink and green of the hunting carpets are in fact present in the small later rugs, but never in such a predominant way).

The hunting carpets were surely made on order for the Safavid court, perhaps to satisfy some special need. There is no evidence that there was any export market for Persian carpets until about the middle of the century. Yet at the same moment that Shah Tahmasp’s patronage of the arts waned and many of his court artists sought employment at other courts, imported Persian carpets appear in European inventories for the first time, probably as high-end producers adjusted to market realities. Medici inventories in Italy as well as Braganza inventories in Portugal indicate that Persian animal rugs made of silk and gold and silver thread, in sizes consistent with the small Kashan rugs, were imported during the 1560s and 1570s. Two rugs of this class have been in Italy and Portugal since at least the nineteenth century and perhaps much longer. The small silk Kashans thus likely represent the evolution of court furnishings into a more commercial product that satisfied both local and foreign demands.

Daniel Walker in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
Prince Princezza, Evora, Portugal; Edouard Chappey, Paris (until 1907; sale Galerie Georges Petit,Paris, June 5–7, 1907, lot 1912, sold to Altman); Benjamin Altman, New York (1907–d. 1913; bequeathed to MMA)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Four Silk Kashan Rugs," August 2, 1994–February 5, 1994, no catalogue.

Dimand, Maurice S. A Handbook of Muhammadan Art. 2nd rev. and enl. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1944. p. 293, ill. fig. 194 (b/w).

Dimand, Maurice S., and Jean Mailey. Oriental Rugs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1973. no. 13, pp. 101, 142-143, ill. fig. 79.

Ellis, Charles. Oriental Carpets in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1988. p. 171.

Ekhtiar, Maryam, Sheila R. Canby, Navina Haidar, and Priscilla P. Soucek, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 182, pp. 4, 261-263, ill. p. 262 (color).



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