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Behzad or Bihzad (died ca. 1530) is considered the most important painter of Persia in a period when the country produced many great painters.

Unfortunately, important as Behzad was, there is no record of his birth or death and very little information about his life. We know that he was a painter at the court of Sultan Hoseyn Beyqara, head of the principality of Herat (now in Afghanistan). Apparently Behzad was an orphan, and Mirak, the chief painter and director of the library of the court of Sultan Hoseyn, adopted and trained him. From childhood Behzad was acquainted with poets and artists such as Jami and Navayi. Sultan Hoseyn, who was an accomplished poet himself, recognized Behzad's genius and chose him to succeed Mirak as court painter and director of the library.

Behzad painted in Herat from about 1480 to 1505. At that time Herat and the whole northeastern region were annexed by the newly formed Safavid empire founded by Shah Esmail. The new monarch took Behzad with him to his capital, Tabriz, where he became painter and director of the library under Shah Esmail and his son, Shah Tahmasp. Behzad held these positions until his death about 1530. Like many famous painters of the time, he did not sign all his works, and many pictures which bear his name are not authentic.

Inasmuch as almost all miniature painting in Persia was done to illustrate books, usually the court painter was also the chief librarian. The artist would choose episodes from famous love stories such as Shirin and Farhad, Vis and Ramin, and Leyli and Majnun, or from the Shahnameh, the epic of kings, or any other book that caught his fancy. The artist's purpose was to give pleasure to his viewers, not to convey a message.

The Mongol invasion in the 13th century had separated Persia culturally and spiritually from the rest of the Moslem world and ushered in a most creative period in art. Of the numerous schools of miniature painting that developed, one was the Herat school, to which Behzad belonged. His genius, however, transcended the conventional forms in vogue at the time.

Behzad's work shows the Persian love for detail, but it is superior in conception and execution. His treatment of figures, vivid characterization, expression of movement through the skillful use of colors, and harmonious balance between figures and background were all improvements on the previous schools.

Behzad is also recognized as an innovator in that he introduced naturalism into Persian painting. The old expressionless faces and figures were discontinued. By the use of delicate lines he revealed the effort of breathing, the tension of muscles, and the varied expressions of the faces. In group pictures every person is alive and intent on what he is doing. Whereas the conventional schools sacrificed natural expression for beauty, Behzad's paintings have both beauty and expression.

Further Reading

The most detailed description of Behzad's miniatures is in Arthur Upham Pope, ed., A Survey of Persian Art from Prehistoric Times to the Present, vol. 3 (1939). More recent studies are Basil Gray, Persian Painting (1961), which is more readily available, and B.W. Robinson, Persian Drawings (1965). Behzad's life and work are also discussed in F.R. Martin, The Miniature Painting and Painters of Persia, India, and Turkey from the 8th to the 18th Century (2 vols., 1912), and Sir Thomas W. Arnold, Painting in Islam: A Study of the Place of Pictorial Art in Muslim Culture (1928). □