“Persian Art” and the Making of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ Collection of Islamic Art

Historiography, increasingly central to Islamic art historical scholarship, has established the critical role art dealers, large-scale exhibitions and prevalent notions of the “Orient” played in the shaping of early private and institutional collections of Islamic art. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ Islamic collection, formed in the first half of the twentieth century, owes its existence to Frederick Cleveland Morgan, former MMFA director and an avid art collector involved with the museum in several capacities from 1916 to 1957. Similarly to most North American museum collections of Islamic art, that of the Montreal museum clearly privileges Persian art, particularly twelfth and thirteenth century luxury ceramics. Beyond questions of technical and artistic prowess, the emphasis on Persian art evident in late nineteenth and early twentieth century collections has been attributed to several factors including racial/ist theories, the greater number of Persian artefacts extant, easier access to archaeological sites and material as well as to the important influence of two pivotal figures –both collectors and dealers— in the history of Islamic art in North America, Dikran Kelekian (1887-1951) and Arthur Upham Pope (1881-1969). Cleveland Morgan was a good friend and client of Pope and effectively acquired, akin to numerous other museum directors, a number of the Persian artefacts from him. Using a history of collections approach and drawing upon specific objects and archival material, this paper will contextualize the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ Islamic collection by articulating the connections between its making and the production of public and academic conceptions of and attitudes towards Persian art. Exploring the enmeshment of art, economics, ideology and historical discourse, it will, in addition, bring visibility to a largely unpublished and therefore little known collection of Islamic art.