Painting by Habiballah of Sava (active ca. 1590–1610)
Illustrated album leaf
Attributed to present-day Afghanistan, Herat
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper
Page: W. 11 7/8 x H. 8 in. (30.1 x 20.3 cm); Painting: H. 7 3/4 x W. 5 in. (19.7 x 12.7 cm)
Purchase, Louis E. and Theresa S. Seley Purchase Fund for Islamic Art, The Edward Joseph Gallagher III Memorial Collection, Edward J. Gallagher Jr. Bequest, and Richard S. Perkins and Margaret Mushekian Gifts, 1992
Not on view
Studies such as this superb example of a richly caparisoned royal horse of Arabian stock, with a small head and an elegant swan's neck, abound in fifteenth-, sixteenth-, and seventeenth-century Iranian, Turkish, and Indian paintings and drawings. Many of these works of art either emphasize a prince's dashing horsemanship as an allegory of his royal power and ruling intellect or depict him dismounting in order to show proper humility before a holy man. In this painting, there is no denying the sheer delight of the artist–and no doubt of his royal patron–in dwelling on the beauty of the steed. Habib Allah demonstrates his virtuosity by adorning the saddlecloth with calligraphic, fantastically elongated, serrated leaves interspersed with blossoms, a popular drawing style in sixteenth-century Turkey and Iran known by the Persian word saz, or "fashioning."
Following the death of Shah Isma‘il II in 1577, the centralized art patronage of the Safavid court fragmented. Artists attached themselves to provincial governors and other officials or moved to Qum and Mashhad, the shrine cities of Iran. One such artist, Habiballah of Sava, who painted this image of a dappled gray stallion, began his artistic career in Qum. There he joined the service of Husain Khan Shamlu, who had been governor of Qum from at least as early as 1591–92. In 1598 Husain Khan Shamlu was appointed governor of Herat, taking Habiballah with him. By 1606 the artist was working at the Safavid court in Isfahan.
In addition to the masterful precision of draftsmanship in the rendering of this elegant horse, the sumptuous gold cloth on its back suggests that this painting was completed after 1598, when the Safavid capital was established in Isfahan and Shah ‘Abbas had begun promoting the luxury silk industry. One hallmark of this business, textiles made of contrasting shades of precious metal wrapped around a silk core, is seen here. Additionally, not only the lotuses and saz-leaf motifs (the curved, serrated leaves swooping across the horse blanket) but also their large scale are typical of textiles produced during the reign of Shah ‘Abbas after 1598.
The dating of the painting can be further narrowed by comparing the design of the horse blanket with that of the trousers depicted in A Hunter Carrying a Musket, which is signed "Mashhadi Habiballah." The palette and the concept of large floral and vegetal elements in a vine scroll are the same in both works. As Abolala Soudavar has discussed, the presence of the word Mashhadi before the artist’s name indicates that he had performed the pilgrimage to Mashhad, where the eighth Shi‘i imam is buried. The most likely time for this to have occurred would have been 1601, when Shah ‘Abbas made the same pilgrimage and remained in the city for four months. The shah may well have taken Habiballah into his service at this time.
Habiballah’s images of single figures appear old-fashioned, a throwback to the style of Qazvin at a moment when a new style was emerging in Isfahan. Yet in this painting, as well as in his exquisite "Concourse of the Birds," added to a Mantiq al-tair (Language of the Birds) (no. 63.210.11, cat. 127D) probably between 1601 and 1606, his very conservatism works in his favor: every hair of the horse and feather of the birds is lovingly, perfectly painted. Unaffected by the fashions of his day, Habiballah presents a horse and birds that recall the precision and coloristic harmony of late Timurid painting at Herat. Only the gold textile, feather ornament, and clumps of gold vegetation and clouds firmly place his portrait of a horse at the beginning of the seventeenth century.
Sheila R. Canby in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. Ahmadibn Mir Munshi al-Husaini. Calligraphers and Painters: A Treatise by Qadi Ahmad, Son of Mir- Munshi (circa A.H. 1015/A.D. 1606). Translated by V[ladimir] Minorsky. Smithsonian Institution Publication 4339. Freer Gallery of Art Occasional Papers, vol. 3, no. 2. Washington, D.C., 1959, p. 191. According to Qadi Ahmad, Shah ‘Abbas "took him [Habiballah] away from the khan, and now  he is in the capital, Isfahan, employed by the court department [sarkar-i humayun] as a painter."
2. Sakisian, Armenag Bey. La miniature persane du XIIe au XVIIe siècle. Paris and Brussels, 1929, pl. 103. The depiction of patterns on textiles in paintings is invariably freer than on actual textiles because of the technical aspect of repeating motifs on the loom. Several examples from about 1600 contain similar motifs to those on the horse blanket, but none is identical to it. See Neumann, Reingard, and Gerhard Murza. Persische Seiden: Die Gewebekunst der Safawiden und ihrer Nachfolger. Leipzig, 1988, pp. 262–63, nos. 3 and 7–10.
3. Soudavar, Abolala, with Milo Cleveland Beach. Art of the Persian Courts: Selections from the Art and History Trust Collection. New York, 1992, p. 237.
Inscription: Signature in Persian in nasta‘liq script:
راقمه حبیب الله
Habiballah painted it
Howard Hodgkin, London; [ Terence McInerney Fine Arts Ltd., New York, until 1992; sold to MMA]
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Nature of Islamic Ornament Part II: Vegetal Patterns," September 10, 1998–January 10, 1999, no catalogue.
Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin vol. 50 (1991–1992). p. 15, ill. (color).
Walker, Daniel S., Marie Lukens Swietochowski, and Annemarie Schimmel. "Recent Acquisitions: A Selection, 1991-1992." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin vol. 50 (Fall 1992). p. 15, ill. (color).
Alexander, David, Maktabat al-Malik Abd al-Aziz al-Ammah, Daniel S. Walker, and Helmut Nickel. Furusiyya. The Horse in the Art of the Near East, edited by David Alexander. vol. 1. Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: King Abdulaziz Public Library, 1996. pp. 190-191, ill. fig. II (color).
Hillenbrand, Robert, ed. "Studies in Honour of Basil W. Robinson." In Persian Painting from the Mongols to the Qajars. Pembroke Persian papers, vol. 3. London and New York: I.B. Tauris & Company, Ltd., 2000. pp. 289, 292, ill. I, H.15 (b/w), p. 284.
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. 143, pp. 215-216, ill. p. 216 (color).