Mirzā ʿAli-Qoli Khoʾi The Master Illustrator of Lithographed Books in the Qajar Period

Although illustrations in Persian manuscripts have long been acknowledged as deserving serious study, research on the art of illustration in lithographed books of the Qajar period is a fairly recent field of studies in the context of Persianate culture. The past decade has witnessed a growing awareness for the history of the Persian printed book in general, documented by a fair amount of recently published catalogues of libraries and special collections in Iran, and a growing number of detailed studies on specific printed books. Even so, numerous important questions remain to be explored. A point of particular interest relates to the production and impact of individual artists in the field.
The most prominent of these artists is Mirzā ʿAli-Qoli Khoʾi. Even though this artist was active for just about a decade (1846-1855), his tremendous output is not only highly original but also extremely influential in terms of impact. Mirzā ʿAli-Qoli Khoʾi produced at least some 1,500 images in works bearing his signature, and maybe more than an additional 750 images in his unsigned work. While the images in some of the books he illustrated, such as Ferdousi’s Shāhnāme, Neẓāmi’s Khamse, or Qazvini’s ʿAjāʾeb al-makhluqāt, relate closely to earlier manuscript illustration, much of his production draws on the artist’s own creativity, as the books he chose to illustrate had rarely been illustrated before.
The contributions to this panel will highlight in detail various aspects of Mirzā ʿAli-Qoli Khoʾi work in view of a detailed assessment of visual culture in the Qajar period (and beyond). Following a general introduction of the artist’s production (Ulrich Marzolph), two contributions are to assess the artist’s creativity from two different angles: Mirzā ʿAli-Qoli Khoʾi’s illustrations to a total of eleven editions of Tufān al-bokāʾ demonstrate both the range of possible visualizations in a work of contemporary martyrology (Ali Buzari), while his illustrations to three editions of Saʿdi’s Kolleyāt serve to discuss the artist’s creativity and his dilemma in finding suitable objects of illustrations for a classical work of Persian literature that never had a “standardˮ corpus of illustrations (Roxana Zenhari). The panel’s final contribution is to showcase Mirzā ʿAli-Qoli Khoʾi’s position in between tradition and modernity by emphasizing his impact on the production of subsequent artists (Mahbobe Qods).

Personal Information (Panel Organizer)

Ulrich Marzolph
Georg-August University


Room 30
Fri, 2016-08-05 10:30 - 12:00


by Ali Boozari / Art University

The more than 30 books whose illustrations have been signed by Mirzā ʿAli-Qoli Khoʾi cover various genres, ranging from classical Persian literature to contemporary popular literature and military manuals for teaching at the Dār al-fonun. The most important genre of books he illustrated, however, are books of the so-called “rowże-khāni” genre. The term “rowże-khāni” here denotes narrative compilations dealing with the history of early Islam from a Shiʿi perspective, in particular with the life and death of Imām Ḥosein and the tragical events of Kerbalā. The most popular of these books in the Qajar period was Jouhari’s contemporary compilation Ṭufān al-bokāʾ for which Mirzā ʿAli-Qoli Khoʾi illustrated at least eleven different editions in his active period of less than ten years (1846-1855). As ʿAli-Qoli was one of the first illustrators to work in this genre of lithographed books, he may duly be regarded as the pioneer of this type of illustration.
My contribution is to discuss the particular genre of “rowże-khāni” illustrations in three sections: At first, I will introduce the different books of this genre published in the Qajar period; as a second step, I will identify the common visual patterns that the artist used; and third, I will introduce samples of the works of later artists who created their work based on the models created by Mirzā ʿAli-Qoli Khoʾi. The essential aim of my contribution is to demonstrate that Mirzā ʿAli-Qoli Khoʾi was not only a highly inventive and original illustrator, but that his illustrations had such a strong impact as to constitute general models for later illustrations included in religious books that more often than not were directly copied from his work.

by Ulrich Marzolph / Georg-August University

The research project that is currently conducted under my supervision by Dr. Roxana Zenhari in Göttingen aims to document the work of Mirzâ ‘Ali-Qoli Kho’i in view of a comprehensive and detailed assessment of the artist’s production as a major contribution to the visual culture in the Qajar period. My presentation is to introduce the project with particular attention to the problems we encounter, many of which are relevant for assessments of Qajar art and culture in general. First and foremost, definite informations, let alone documents, regarding the artist’s life are lacking, so that we are restricted to the contextual data supplied by his artistic production. Second, many of the items he illustrated have only been preserved in single and often fragmentary copies that are at times extremely difficult to locate. Third, we have decided tentatively to consider images bearing Mirzā ʿAli-Qoli’s signature as having actually been executed by himself, unless there is clear evidence to the opposite. Fourth, the artist’s work is also encountered in items other than books, such as newspapers and single sheet prints, many of which might not yet have been located. And fifth, the artist’s position between tradition and modernity needs to be highlighted, in particular as for the sources that inspired his work and the impact his work had on the production of subsequent artists.
As a result of our research, Mirzā ʿAli-Qoli’s emerges as one of the most influential artists of the Qajar period. He adapted the vocabulary of classical Persian painting to the modest art of lithographic illustration. He ingeniously created numerous images to scenes that had rarely, if ever, been illustrated before. And his work served as a permanent source of inspiration for later artists. To this, we may add a social dimension in that his work made the narrative imagery of Persian narrative literature available beyond the circles of the “privileged few” that had formerly had exclusive access to traditional Persian manuscript tradition. Seen in this manner, Mirzā ʿAli-Qoli Khoʾi deserves the serious attention of Islamic art historians as he contributed decisively to the visual culture of the Qajar period.

by Mahbobe Ghods / Columbia University

Lithographic illustrations in Persian books of the Qajar period constitute the conduit for transition in book illustration from the older manuscripts to modern and contemporary Iranian art. Illustrations in lithographed books made available once exclusive, rare, and tremendously expensive manuscript illustrations to many new readers, thus spreading its aesthetics and forms to a much wider audience and by extension to the future generations. This historic transition is particularly evident in the work of Mirzā ʿAli-Qoli Khoʾi, a master artist who was thoroughly familiar with traditional illustrations in literary works, such as Ferdousi’s Shāhnāme and Neẓāmi’s Khamse. Khoʾi’s drawings, layouts, and designs closely resembled older established formats of book illustrations. Even though the official oil painting of the Qajar royal court was more realistic, the spread of lithographic illustrations had a great impact on other visual arts. For instance, similar compositions can be found in the popular arts of “Coffehouse painting” and painting behind glass.
Mirzā ʿAli-Qoli Khoʾi is one of the first Iranian artists who mastered the techniques of lithographic printing. Khoʾi’s skills in drawing and his knowledge of the traditional illustrations helped him adopt techniques most suitable for lithography. For instance, he used pardaz, an elaborate technique of placing dots in closely tight space to create an illusion of depth to create light and shadow. Khoʾi’s tremendous output early on in the process of the transition to printed books helped pave the way for a sustained artistic and aesthetic continuity in Iranian art. Many modern and contemporary Iranian artists such as Ardeshir Mohases, Farshi Methgali, etc have been influenced by Khoʾi’s work.
My contribution examines this important transition from manuscript illustration to lithographed books of the Qajar period in light of older illustrated works, works of Khoʾi’s contemporaries and his influence on later artistic trends.

by Roxana Zenhari / Georg-August University

“Irregular” Illustrations: Mirzā ʿAli-Qoli Khoʾi’s visual representation of Saʿdi’s poems
Roxana Zenhari

Mirzā ʿAli-Qoli Khoʾi, the most professional artist of lithographic illustration in the Qajar period, has created his pictures in a vast array of genres: holy-religious themes and explicitly sexy scenes are two opposing extremes of his work. In the 34 signed books that have most probably been illustrated by Mirzā ʿAli-Qoli Khoʾi, the artist was faced with different traditions of illustration. For instance, the illustrations to both Ferdousi’s Shāhnāme and Neẓāmi’s Khamse in manuscript tradition refer to a more or less standardized “canonical” iconographical set of models enabling the observer to recognize them easily. Contrasting with the standard models of these works, the Kolleyāt of Saʿdi constitutes a great challenge for illustrators, as they would have to illustrate irregular, unknown themes that had rarely, if ever been illustrated in previous manuscript tradition. Constituting an interesting point of comparison, Mirzā ʿAli-Qoli Khoʾi has illustrated both Neẓāmi’s Khamse and Saʿdi’s Kolleyāt in three different editions. The altogether 120 illustrations in the three editions of Neẓāmi’s Khamse (1847, 1852, 1853) executed by Mirzā ʿAli-Qoli Khoʾi include about 50 scenes, so there is comparatively little variation in terms of scenes or styles in illustration. On the contrary, the altogether 221 illustrations in the three editions of Saʿdi’s Kolleyāt (1851, 1852, 1874) contain a total of 180 different scenes, indicated a limited range of overlap and thus a greater momentum of individual creativity.
My contribution will focus on Mirzā ʿAli-Qoli Khoʾi’s visual interpretation of the stories and verses in Saʿdi’s Kolleyāt, many of which do not belong to the standard corpus of illustrations. Special attention will be devoted to a discussion of the artist’s choices in composing either central illustrations to the text or illustrative and decorative images on the margins.